tue 21/11/2017

CD: James Blake - The Colour in Anything / Skepta - Konnichiwa | reviews, news & interviews

CD: James Blake - The Colour in Anything / Skepta - Konnichiwa

CD: James Blake - The Colour in Anything / Skepta - Konnichiwa

From north London to the world in two very different styles

Skepta and Blake, contrasting voices of 'generation bass'

Skepta (aka Joseph Adenuga Jr) and James Blake provide a fascinating parallel as voices of the UK's “generation bass”. Both are from north London, and both have come from a grounding in the subsonic undercurrents of London's early 21st century underground genres – Skepta mainly in grime, Blake in dubstep, although each reached into the other's scene a little via early collaborations – and both have risen to international success, in particular becoming influential on the American mainstream.

Skepta has attracted the patronage of premiere league US hip hop stars, particularly Drake, A$AP Rocky and Kanye West, while Blake also counts Kanye and Drake among his admirers, as well as Madonna, Lorde and Beyoncé, who invited him to appear on her Lemonade album. And both released albums sight unseen on Friday: Skepta's long-awaited, Blake's arriving more or less without warning.

Sound, word and delivery are all austere but carry huge force of personality

But for all that their paths have meandered across the same industry territories over the years, the two could scarcely be more different musically or socially. Adenuga is from the estates of Tottenham while Blake had a bohemian middle class upbringing in the suburbs. Blake's songs are melancholic, introspective, led by his keening voice and as influenced by Tim Buckley and Joni Mitchell as they are by the giant speaker stacks of dubstep raves, while Skepta's gruff and direct MC'ing is all about self-assertion, gang and crew politics, modern machismo and the workings of grime itself as it matures and spreads out from its riotous roots.

On Konnichiwa, Skepta finally delivers the album that his fans always hoped he was capable of. Though he's been a lynchpin of the grime scene for many years, he's never turned in a full-length collection that fully represented that. Either stylistically fractured, or loaded with ill-advised attempts to make mainstream-sounding tunes, his major releases have never conveyed to a wider audience why he's held in such adulation by the hardcore of fans. His single “That's Not Me” in 2014, though, went back to the core values of grime, leading a resurgence for the genre, and leading to huge expectations (and fears) for the album.

Thankfully, it delivers in buckets. Mainly self-produced, there are no attempts to deliver pop hooks or cheesy dance rushes: it's mainly a fusion of recent US rap rhythms with grime's grotty, gritty, weird sonorities. Only a Queens of the Stone Age loop in “Man” hints at a musical world outside rap / grime, and even that is subsumed into Skepta's soundworld. It's a mark of how tough the album sounds that a guest production (and vocal) from megastar Pharrell Williams on “Numbers” doesn't upset the balance of the album. Guest verses from grime's very finest like Wiley, D Double E and Novelist likewise don't distract from this being Skepta's story. His lyrics muse on familiar themes – women, weed, raves, rivalries, maintaining credibility “on road” while flying high in the music industry – but always with imposing presence, wordplay and a dense mesh of coded and direct references that make them endlessly listenable and re-listenable. Sound, word and delivery are all austere but carry huge force of personality, so though in a sense the record is genre-purist it nonetheless carves out its own space.

Blake, meanwhile, has gone the other way musically and become more baroque. The early tracks on The Colour in Anything might kid you into thinking he's not moved on from his first two albums, and certainly there are a lot of the trademark tics: his lavish piano chords, ticking hip hop / dub beats, chasmic bass tones, repeated phrases alluding to loss and desolation, and dehumanising electronic tweaks. But his songwriting has loosened up a great deal, with melodies unfolding and unravelling in unexpected directions over longer time periods, and there are odd diversions like the frayed-round-the-edges electropop of “I Hope my Life (1-800 Mix)”. His voice has grown up a good deal too. It was always a sight more individualist than most of the post-Thom Yorke falsetto-mongers out there, but could be mannered and reticent. Now he seems far more comfortable with it as an instrument. 

In fact, as the album goes on it seems to grow in confidence, building more and more around these tumbling, winding structures, until 10 tracks in with “Choose Me” it builds into an intense kind of secular gospel. The hymnal quality has always been there with Blake, but here it's allowed to expand far more than ever before – and this cathedral-scale drama continues immediately in the Bon Iver collaboration “I Need a Forest Fire” and later in the album with “Two Men Down” and “Modern Soul”. Blake is not doing anything that will persuade detractors, but he is building stunning and ambitious structures on the foundations of his previous work. And that's where he and Skepta's similarities really lie. Radically different though their sounds might be, both are very British, very of the now, and both prove that real international success can come from being uncompromising and true to the weirdness and potentially offputting darkness of their own vision.

Both have come from a grounding in the subsonic undercurrents of London's early-21st-century underground genres

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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