LET'S FACE IT: UK Rap Is Running Circles Around Us


Complex

On February 12, England MC Slowthai released TYRON — his long-awaited follow-up to Nothing Great About Britain.


On his second studio album, the UK rapper took a step back from his maniacal aura. He added layers to his polarizing young career by way of self-discovery and growth. Slowthai addresses, corrects and rises above a number of public incidents that forced his name under siege, all while remaining authentic.


TYRON is an impressive project for a number of reasons, but one particular trait it achieves seems to be a developing trend in the rap landscape. It’s original.


Two countries that share a border with the Atlantic Ocean strive to achieve this label. Only one seems to be warranting the slightest consideration… and it’s not us. In an imaginary battle of mainstream rap between the USA and the UK, our English counterparts are — and have been — running circles around us. In 2021, the gap has widened.


Allow me to preface such a claim. I am in no way referring to rap’s many subsections — most of which are thriving in the states. This statement lies in concern to mainstream rap — the kind of stuff we see first on the hip-hop page of Apple Music or Spotify. For the sake of distinction, we’ll refer to it as billboard rap in this piece.


Let’s start by taking a long, hard look at ourselves. Where did we go wrong? The answer to this question is multi-faceted, but each misstep needs to be somewhat traced in order to realize why exactly England is carrying the mainstream torch. We need to attack this ugly beast at its core. For starters, the line between social media and musical composition has become blurred. Exhibit A is TikTok.


Think about the last time you scrolled up relentlessly for an hour on everyone’s new favorite video app: the same 10-12 songs — most of which are rap — play over, and over and over. I’m being generous in saying “songs,” because truthfully, it’s 10-12 bars. They all follow a similar formula: punchy beat + simple, catchy lyrics = streams.

This trend has caught the attention of young, bright-eyed rappers. It’s also caught the attention of scheming, green-eyed record companies.


TikTok’s senior manager of music partnerships and artist relations, Isabel Quinteros, knows exactly how to spin this newfound industry tactic. In 2019, she outlined for WIRED magazine why the application’s users have taken such an affinity to the genre in question.


“Rap has always had a playful way of delivering lyrics. TikTok is filled with light-hearted content from people having fun with their videos, and we’re excited to give these artists a platform to directly connect with their fans.”


Isn’t that cute? This is precisely how the platform frames its entire scheme. Rap on TikTok leans almost exclusively on the element of short-formedness — in other words, the biggest question asked is, “how can you win over as many viewers as possible in a 15-second window?”


There is no deviation, no creativity — just an unflinching drive to land that next viral record. Then it drops off. HARD. Let’s use one of the app's biggest hits as a stark example of this metaphorical cliff: 24kGoldn’s “Mood.”


Photo: Phil Knott

If you even went as far as touching the TikTok icon on your phone this past summer, 24kGoldn’s voice graced your eardrums thousands of times. This isn’t an exaggeration: Spotify’s current stream count of “Mood” sits at 829,520,650. The single reached #1 on each of the 10 primary international charting countries. “Mood” was nothing short of a smash hit. In any other era of rap music, this’d be a sign of prosperous days to come, or a peak on an already established hot streak.


Hey, did you know 24kGoldn released an album before “Mood?” He did! Columbia Records released DROPPED OUTTA COLLEGE with 24kGoldn. Surely it did numbers, right? It charted at #122 on Billboard.


Oh, 24kGoldn had a feature recently? It’s with Clean Bandit? I like them! What’s it called? Tick Tock?” Ahhhh.


Please, do not misconstrue this as hate — he is certainly polarizing and talented — the critique lies on the shoulders of the people pulling his strings.


This is where it gets scary. TikTok has quietly, sneakily become a streaming service of its own. Alex Mitchell-Hardt of PlaylistPush reported earlier this year that the colossal video app now pays for streams the same way Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal do. In fact, they’ve partnered.


Record labels and distributors have made it so that, for each video created set to a particular song (that falls under the label's ownership), the artist is awarded revenue. Scratch that. The distributor is awarded revenue, and they pay the artist however they see fit.


A topic like this is difficult to criticize. I realize this as I type these words. Don’t get me wrong; I’m genuinely happy for these young mainstream artists — any source of income in these ambitious artists' budding careers deserves praise.


What I’m bothered with is the mold it’s created — an intentional caste that tech companies and record labels have meticulously collaborated, carved and rebranded as “creative” and “unique.” The world’s largest social media platform has incentivized uniformity. This terrifies me.


How have our friends across the pond avoided such trends and distanced themselves? Well, for one, the UK's genre-specific timeline is far newer than ours. In fact, it’s only a few years removed from its grime-heavy adolescence; Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in da Corner, Wiley’s Treddin’ on Thin Ice, Kano’s Home Sweet Home and Lethal Bizzle’s Against All Oddz all gave mainstream airwaves its first taste of grime in 2003-2004. To this day, the genre's pioneers still release music, further speaking to its infancy.


The customary 140 BPM sound contrived from an already established dance scene became a massive success in England. For years, we scoffed at their attempts to lay down bars. In 2016, that “little brother” image changed just a little.


I can’t pinpoint what UK rap album first broke onto the US charts, but I can tell you which one I remember drawing widespread popularity: Skepta’s landmark 2016 effort, Konnichiwa. The British MC is nothing short of a household name amongst rap discussions for his numerous collaborations — most notably work with A$AP Rocky.


NME

Since Konnichiwa, the United Kingdom has steadily progressed in style and range. Dave’s Psychodrama is air-tight and replay-able. J Hus released Common Sense in 2018 — another big step in combining new forms of dance music with rapid delivery. Grime messiah Wiley dropped Godfather in 2017 — over a decade since his first release — an aggressive rebrand that built upon previously established motifs the rapper is cemented for. Lady Leisure, England’s resident queen of rap, has quite literally never missed. I could go on and on, but before I wrap this up, I’d like to point out a common thread that ties these artists together: they all chart in their country.


UK rap fans, above all else, are relentlessly loyal. They’re open-minded — no project falls too far outside the spectrum of what’s “enjoyable.” I don’t know if we can currently say the same over here in the states. We MUST support every head under the umbrella. If we don’t, we’ll fall deeper into this cyclical hole of social media churned bullshit.