Skepta: Vicious EP
Skepta’s fifth album, Konnichiwa, really was the UK’s runaway success story of 2016 — most of all thanks to winning the Mercury Prize against all odds, beating the likes of David Bowie, Radiohead, and fellow emcee, Kano. A posthumous Bowie win seemed all but certain. This was followed by the NME Album of the Year award, and even the Ivor Novello Songwriter of the Year — not bad for one Joseph Adenuga, who comes from the humblest of beginnings in the Meridian Walk estate, Tottenham.
But despite being arguably at the forefront of driving grime into the mainstream, and his true rags to riches story, these huge accomplishments have brought with them the inevitable haters. Particularly starting after his post Ivor Novello win interview, in which he admits the shirt he is wearing is from the womenswear section, and allegations he has been abusing the Bolivian marching powder (he does appear a little jittery in said interview). But as we know, if an artist is to evolve, via the complete package that includes sound and fashion, they must be willing to let go of fans clinging to the old sound and the ubiquitous tracksuits. Is the Vicious EP that moment in Skepta’s career?
While this EP itself has been kept secret, it certainly appeared that way when he released its two singles; No Security and Hypocrisy. Going beyond the YouTube commenters falling over each other, purporting that the songs and videos both contain references to voodoo magic, freemasonry, and (of course) the illuminati, both tracks show a marked progression in Skepta’s sound. While No Security is a grime track, it uses fresh synth sounds, rather than the deliberate nostalgia that Konnichiwa was all about. And the lyrics are bitingly sharp: "I just put the fish eye on my tunnel vision / see no evil, hear no evil, man’s refuse to listen."
And again, on Hypocrisy, Skepta is well aware that many grime artists deliberately reference the 2004 sound that Wiley pioneered, and that it would be overkill for him to continue to do so. Some of those crying ‘sellout’ are purporting that his sound is now too American, but it’s certainly no bad thing if Skepta incorporates some of the futuristic sounds that you might hear in a Danny Brown beat; in fact, it would be churlish to deliberately ignore the rap sound across the pond. And he even addresses the sellout claims by claiming he turned down a very royal piece of recognition: "Just got back from the Ivors / and look at what we collected / the MBE got rejected / I’m not tryin’ to be accepted."
The EP’s opener, Still, is just as fresh sounding, driven by a restless arpeggiator. A relatively laid back song, it is fitting in that Vicious isn’t up there with Skepta’s most agressively raw, grimey material. He does fit a nice UK movie reference in there too: "we win awards, come home and attack the block / John Boyega when I’m acting up." There’s some strong features here, the first of which being Lil B on Sit Down, who provides the chorus over a particularly wavey beat. The Section Boyz get involved on Worst, very much the straightest grime track on show here, which will have you throwing gun signs in your bedroom, or suppressing the urge to on public transport.
The features culminate with another trans-Atlantic track, Ghost Ride, which brings along A$AP Rocky and A$AP Ferg. Perhaps unsurprising, then, that it’s the most hip-hop-centric cut on the EP. Hopefully the grime purists can see past this, as A$AP Rocky is typically brilliant as he opens up the track for Skepta. The beat is almost reminiscent of early Eminem, but again, this is no throwback. It works very well, with all the obligatory police siren and gunshot samples.
Skepta won all of his awards because he was recognised for being a forward-thinking artist.
Had this EP not continued the forward propulsion, it would have taken a little of the shine off his Mercury and Ivor Novello awards. Here is a brief collection of songs that shows he is worthy of them. Not to mention whetting the appetite for his next full LP. It also sees Skepta in an interesting transitional place — it’s very tricky to call how his next album will sound, as we’ve already moved beyond Konnichiwa. Most of all, it continues one of the greatest UK music success stories of recent times.