A year before Slowthai released TYRON, he was at the NME Awards shooting himself in the foot and risking an end to what had been a meteoric and well-deserved rise. His behaviour that night was embarrassing and unacceptable. It was unsurprising to see that he was swiftly condemned for his actions and I doubt anyone was shocked when Twitter predicted a premature end to his career. That reaction was, to me, as troubling as Slowthai’s behaviour. What I saw on that stage was a troubled young man whose behaviour needed to be condemned and accounted for, but not a person who deserved to have their opportunities reduced to the degree that some were suggesting. How could we go from praising him for the refreshing honesty on his debut Nothing Great About Britain, recognising his ability to talk about his difficult upbringing and his struggles with substances and his mental health, to calling for him to be ostracised when those issues showed up on TV screens across the world? Yes, he acted like a dick that night – but I believe that a person who has shown they are willing to learn and grow deserves more than to be written off after one (very public) mistake. I wouldn’t be able to do the job that I do if I didn’t believe that.
I might feel differently if he showed no remorse for that night. But he did. A full and frank apology was issued and, while many may doubt the intent, it was as genuine a celebrity ‘sorry’ as I’ve seen. A year later, too, it is clear that that night of infamy has been playing heavily on his mind. While TYRON doesn’t exclusively deal with that night and its aftermath, the effects of that reaction on social media seem to cast a heavy cloud over the whole record. And not only the content of the music either. In splitting the album between the opening seven songs (all capitalised on the sleeve notes and more aggressive in tone) and the closing seven songs (all lower case and more introspective) Slowthai seems to be immediately making the point that there are two sides to every story.
Perhaps most interestingly, as part of an album that is in many ways a character study of himself, Slowthai doesn’t simply wallow in regret. At times he expresses anger at the ease with which people wrote him off. Alongside guest vocalist Skepta, ‘CANCELLED’ asks how so many people could want him dismissed for displaying the exact flaws and issues that he had admitted to on his debut. On tracks such as ‘VEX’ and ‘WOT’ he snarls in his distinctive and unique tone, twisting and turning around some dark and aggressive beats and showing the same crazy skill and confidence that he displayed on his debut. For many, these songs will be the highlight because of the vocal dexterity and outright aggression that is on display.
For me, though, Slowthai takes himself to a new level on ‘PLAY WITH FIRE’ and the songs that follow it. ‘PLAY WITH FIRE’ acts like a kind of bridge between the harder edge of the album, and the more open and honest elements – and in it, we see Slowthai almost break into two distinct personalities; boasting about being ‘the best thing since electric’ in the opening verse before later conceding that ‘My heart and mind are at war/and my souls out here playing piggy in the middle’. This section is one of the most revealing on the album – and the fact that it’s followed by the sung chorus of ‘i tried’ admitting ‘I tried to die/I tried to take my life’ means that we are immediately taken into new territory when we pass the halfway mark.
‘i tried’ is full of captivating lines such as ‘we filled cracks of broken homes with broken dreams and broken bones’, but also becomes a fascinating and insightful discussion of where some of the issues we saw at the NME Awards might be coming from. As the rapper delves into a look at his childhood, lines like ‘Fuckery decisions, yeah, the shit that made me this cool’ see an open admission of how he battles with his own complexity – how he was often given praise and reinforcement for things that he immediately regretted and wished he could take back. This bravery in facing up to his own failings continues throughout the album’s second half and comes into extreme focus on the closing song ‘adhd’.
On this haunting closer, we see Slowthai talk about how he is ‘tryna get a grip’ but his ‘fingers slip’ and listen to him frankly admit how whenever he tries to make progress he can often bring it crashing down through his own actions. As the song barrels through admissions of drink and drug dependency and fears for the risk he presents to himself, we are given a brief break as he speaks with a friend on the phone – a moment of connection offering him a way out. But when this is followed by the most visceral verse on the album, it is hard not to leave TYRON with huge concerns for the vulnerabilities of its author and a hope that the more positive side he shows at other times on this album will help to pull him through.
And I’ll have to end by talking about some of those more positive sections and the moments of beauty that make this album stand head and shoulders above its predecessor. ‘nhs’ is the major moment of uplift on the album, as Slowthai looks at the importance of balance and connection. And in songs like ‘push’ and the James Blake and Mount Kimbie collaboration ‘feel away’, we are treated to some of the most exquisite production I have heard on a UK Hip-Hop/Grime album. These tracks show a versatility to Slowthai that makes him all the more thrilling as an artist.
So yes, we are dealing with a flawed and multi-faceted character here. The most impressive thing about TYRON is that the flaws and issues of its author are never shied away from, there is no begging for forgiveness, but there is a continuation of the openness and honesty that made the debut such a crossover success. Some might still feel he deserves be cancelled, and I can sympathise with the thinking there. But on a personal level, I can’t listen to this album without being moved by his story, impressed by his candidness, and excited by his undeniable talent.
Words by Fran Slater