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In England, few musicians have a higher profile than the grime star Stormzy: Adele recently acknowledged him from the stage during a performance; he vocally supported the Labour politician Jeremy Corbyn; and it was national news when a neighbor called the police on him as he was returning to his home in a well-to-do West London neighborhood. He makes a cameo on the current season of the tastemaking British TV hit “Chewing Gum” and appears on “Good Goodbye,” a song from the new Linkin Park album, and on an official remix of “Shape of You,” Ed Sheeran’s global pop hit, which the two performed together at the Brit Awards in February, a year after Stormzy publicly criticized the event for its lack of recognition of grime.
That same month, Stormzy released “Gang Signs & Prayer,” his first proper studio album following a few years of singles and freestyles. Ambitious and musically diverse, it shows a performer who easily navigates multiple spaces: relentless grime purist, on songs like “Return of the Rucksack” and “Cold”; contemplative family man on “100 Bags”; sensitive pop hitmaker on “Cigarettes & Cush.” It became the first independently released grime album to top the British album chart.
Stormzy’s ubiquity and success is perhaps the most visible example of how far grime — a hybrid of street-oriented hip-hop and eccentric-but-tough club music particular to England — has come from its beginnings in the early 2000s. Then, it was the insurgent sound of black youth in East London — lo-fi, muscular and brittle, full of intricate, chaotic raps. Over time, it began to birth stars who slipped into British pop: Dizzee Rascal, Kano, Tinie Tempah and more. But even though individual acts were thriving, the genre as a whole remained primarily an underground concern, influential but marginalized.
Which makes what has happened in the last couple of years so striking: Grime, in something close to its rawest form, is minting stars — Stormzy, Skepta and more — who are reaching the top of the British charts and exerting a global influence while continuing to wear the genre’s de facto uniform, a tracksuit, a rejoinder to the flash of what came before it and what surrounds it, as well as to American hip-hop excess.
The genre remains resolutely vigorous, with production that throbs, chirps, shrieks and thumps, and a passel of sharp young vocalists who keep its underground vital. But the true measure of grime’s current triumph may be the way in which it has set the table for the acceptance of — and in many cases, increased opportunities for success for — a whole range of British music that is grime-influenced or grime-adjacent, from U.K. rap to Afrobeats-inflected pop to a revival of U.K. garage and more. Grime, once a tiny scene that was the preserve of pirate radio and clashes where M.C.s battled for supremacy, is now robust, diverse and widely acclaimed, and it has become a foundation for a wave of musicians looking beyond it.
At the front of that charge is J Hus, who just released his impressive debut album, “Common Sense,” which uses grime as a steppingstone for a sound that is truly transcontinental, encompassing American hip-hop and West African pop. J Hus is a cheeky, charming performer who raps with a lingering, mottled flow. On “Friendly,” which was a hit last year, and closes out the new album, he’s breezily charismatic, challenging others and poking fun at himself all in one breath:
Why you don’t grind? You no like money?
Spend money like we nuh like money
She love a ugly man making pretty money
And I’m a ugly man making sexy money
J Hus returns often to the theme of ugliness, using it as a source of power in a throwback to how the Notorious B.I.G once did. On “Common Sense,” he thrives regardless of the music behind him: the tinkling Afrobeats of “Did You See,” the sinister stomp of “Clartin” or even the earthy jazz-soul of “Closed Doors.” J Hus has been adaptable since the beginning of his career — one of his early hits was “Lean & Bop,” an infectious dance song — but on “Common Sense,” he takes ownership of a whole range of styles, from the lighthearted to the serious. “Good Luck Chale” may be the most moving song of his career, a morbid tale of superstar wariness and self-examination: “I got a hundred opps and I don’t think much of them/Still tryna do me so good luck to them.” (The song features the smooth crooning of Tiggs Da Author, who is quickly becoming a Nate Dogg- or Akon-esque figure in the scene.)
This is the sound of forward-looking global pop, flexible and wide-ranging, which acknowledges the seamless way musical ideas move across borders these days. A similar hybrid impulse undergirds “LionHeart,” the debut album by the singer and rapper Geko, who is of Libyan and Algerian heritage. “LionHeart” is sweet pop music with an international bent, with inputs from West and North Africa and the Caribbean, as well as England and the United States.
These albums call to mind the way one global star, Drake, has been evolving his sound in real time. When there are exciting new hybrids on the horizon, there is always Drake, looking for ways to make them his own. He has made his affection for grime well known, publicly embracing of Skepta’s Boy Better Know crew, down to getting a tattoo of the logo. Skepta is also featured on “More Life,” Drake’s recent playlist, which still sits near the top of the Billboard album chart.
But the true British star turn on “More Life” belongs to Giggs, who shines with stark, lightly comic verses on two songs, “No Long Talk” and “KMT.” Giggs flirts with grime, but is more of a straight-ahead rapper, as heard on his insistent 2016 album, “Landlord,” a pummeling tough-talk expedition on which he raps in violent whispers, almost in the vein of American minimalists like Roc Marciano and Ka. His phrasing is direct, his storytelling cold-eyed on songs like the harrowing “Just Swervin.”
Drake has also lent a co-sign to the young rapper Dave by appearing on a remix of his song “Wanna Know.” On Dave’s recent single “Revenge,” he gripes about the conundrum: “I got love from superstars in America before I got love from guys I chilled with at the corner shop.”
Dave moves easily between grime and rap — “Thiago Silva” is a jumpy, frisky grime number, and Dave is impressively nimble atop the skittish beat. But the more complex his storytelling is, the more vital Dave becomes, like on “JKYL+HYD,” in which he examines his emotional development through the lens of a wayward childhood:
Let me tell you ’bout my life, I came from a family of five
If I try to tell my story, swear down you would cry
But all you need to know is I’ve lost every single man inside my life
And so I lost my way
It’s like who do you follow when your time feels borrowed
And your idols gone astray?
Grime, which got its start a decade and a half ago as the antidote to the spread of garage, which had become the sound of British nightlife ostentation, is beginning to spawn its own generation of dissenters and counterpunchers. There is Lady Leshurr, who recently released a winning EP, “Mode,” and who sprinkles bits of dancehall and grime into her sprightly hip-hop. There are Harlem Spartans, hard rappers who take loose inspiration from Chicago’s drill scene. And even garage, once deeply out of fashion thanks to grime’s ascent, is experiencing a small resurgence, as heard on the lush album “UKG,” by the outfit TQD.
But by far the soundest retort to grime has come in the ways that U.K. rap has taken on a mood and attitude of its own. Before grime, rap in Britain was frequently disappointingly derivative of the American original, but grime’s emphasis on British identity has also created a path for more traditional rappers.
Of these, none is more promising than Nines, whose recent album “One Foot Out” is one of this year’s most incisive in any genre. Nines is a sober storyteller, rapping with a persistently unimpressed tone, often about drug dealing. On “Break Away,” he dryly boasts, “I just left the label Christmas party to go and break down a pack.”
“One Foot Out” is redolent of the gritty New York rap of the mid 1990s — the production is full of hard-snapping drums cutting through moody arrangements. Unlike grime M.C.s, who are often frenetic and jumpy, Nines is composed to the point of dispassion. He’s returned full circle back to a time before grime, and he’s in no hurry.
Grime Sets Today's Music Agenda in Britain, and Tomorrow's (Published 2017) – The New York Times