Skepta recognizes his influential position in the grime scene and delivers "Konnichiwa," an album that should appease day-one listeners as well as attract fans across the pond.
In the spoken word interlude that follows Konnichiwa's third track, "Corn On The Curb," North London MC Chip attempts to cheer up a tired and confused-sounding Skepta, at one point saying, "We ain't seen nothing like this happen before. Who's seen the country flip on its head like this, fam?" What Chip's referring to, of course, is the latter rapper's meteoric rise in the past two years, not just within his own home country, but also in a region where UK rap has historically struggled: the US. Since releasing "That's Not Me" in Spring 2014, Skepta's managed to become a household name across the Atlantic thanks in part to co-signs from A$AP Mob, Kanye West, and Drake, but also due to undeniably engrossing singles. Chip would know a thing or two about crossover attempts-- in 2012, he signed with Grand Hustle, but only released one mixtape and appeared on two G.D.O.D. tracks before parting ways with the label in 2014. Grime's been an established culture in the UK for years now, but there seems to be a lot riding on Skepta to make it a global phenomenon.
Konnichiwa, then, is a clear attempt at stepping up to the task. Many tracks function as autobiographies for newcomers, describing Skepta's rise from "sitting in the flats" and promising to throw huge raves in parking lots, to actually doing so. The UK slang is considerably toned down, save for a few "mandems" here and there, and three Americans guest on the album, making for Skepta's least grime-confined project yet. But Skepta was never the most isolationist grime scenester to begin with-- his last tape featured a RiFF RAFF interpolation, and he's also dabbled in soccer football stadium-style pop music in the past-- so anyone looking for the most legitimate, orthodox forms of the genre should already know that Konnichiwa most likely won't supply that. Instead, it's a well-attuned midpoint between grime's more self-contained side and its increasingly US-friendly one. You won't hear Skepta rapping over anything as sonically adventurous as the beat on his brother JME's 2015 track "Work," but you also won't hear the Mustardwave and Jeremih hooks of his pals Krept & Konan's biggest hit of last year, "Freak Of The Week."
75% of Konnichiwa is actually very true to the genre's background; it's only a three-song midsection that contains the project's main dalliances with American rap. After an impressive run of four distinctly grimy songs that begins with the booming title track and concludes with the "fax machine masturbating" beat of "Crime Riddim," we get "It Ain't Safe," an A$AP Bari collab that actually happened to be the first track featuring Skepta as a lead artist that we posted on HNHH. It definitely still bears some of the bleepy-bloopy sonic fingerprint of most modern grime, but its tempo and fuck-shit-up hook was familiar enough to incite the most aggressive moshing of the afternoon-- not to mention four instances of the DJ running it back-- at an outdoor show in NYC last summer. It works because the energy and attention to detail is still distinctly Skepta (note the perfectly scene-setting opening lines, "Packs, I sold, had them buzzing on the road/Crack residue in the buttons on my phone") and the track plots a unique midpoint between UK and US styles. The two tracks that follow don't fare so well.
"Ladies Hit Squad" has "bonus track" written all over it, but left smack-dab in the middle of the album, its woozy pacing and standard-issue subject matter totally derail the album's flow. Not even grime veteran D Double E can make it seem like anything more than OVO Sound Radio bait. What follows, though, takes the momentum even further south. "Numbers" is the only track featuring production from a non-Brit, and although it's one of America's most respected names, its fit within the album is questionable. It has Pharrell's easily identifiable sound, which works well as a stand alone track, but a Skepta album seems like a strange place for it.
This two-song hiccup is promptly smoothed over by a hit parade consisting of new single "Man (Gang)" and past bangers "Shutdown" and "That's Not Me" that really hammers home not only Skepta's ability to craft memorable hooks, but also his versatility and inventiveness as a producer. He's got a hand in all but three of Konnichiwa's beats, and none of his work ever seems to retread ground or present daunting listening challenges for those not immediately familiar with grime's herky-jerky drum cadences and garage-inspired rhythmic intricacies. One of his best achievements to date comes on the closer, "Text Me Back," where he turns an honest love song into something propulsive that packs ten times the wallop of the other female-centric on the album, the aforementioned "Ladies Hit Squad." When left to his own devices as a producer and writer, Skepta seems more than capable of conveying his whole emotional gamut without sacrificing any of the immediacy and energy found in his well-defined style of grime.
Konnichiwa was released on Skepta's own label, Boy Better Know, with no outside help from a parent company or major imprint, and considering his current status as the most visible man in grime, Skepta totally could've gotten that help had he wanted it. But in addition to elevating all of this project's considerable achievements, that DIY status also makes the awkward forays into American sounds even more of a head-scratcher, as they clearly weren't mandated by some out-of-touch label head eager for crossover appeal. The only clear answer is that Skepta himself is invested in making grime break in the US, which is a valiant pursuit (especially when you consider how many other UK rappers see him as grime's Chosen One), but outside of "It Ain't Safe," it somewhat dulls what could be a razor-sharp, relatively uncompromising statement of intent. In his conversation with the ascendant star, Chip not only mentions the importance of the frenzy Skepta's whipping up around the world, but also of his self-made image. "Independent to the T, fam," Chip says, providing a guiding principle that defines Konnichiwa's many successes and casts its few missteps into sharp relief.