Skepta: Konnichiwa review – rhymes that are dextrous, sharp and very British

The architect of grime’s resurgence might have an eye on the US market, but he’s a distinctively, winningly English rapper

It features five singles – two of them silver-certified hits – guest appearances from A$AP Mob’s Young Lord and A$AP Nast and a collaboration with Pharrell Williams, but the most telling track on Skepta’s fourth album might well be one that contains no music at all. As a tense bit of old-fashioned grime called Corn on the Curb unexpectedly ends – Skepta apparently forgetting the lyrics midway through a line, the sparse musical backing grinding to a halt – it’s replaced by the sound of a phone call between Skepta and fellow rapper Chip. The former sounds despondent, which comes as something of a surprise.

After all, Skepta is credited as an architect of grime’s astonishing commercial resurgence in the UK, helping shift it from a genre so underground that its artists could apparently only gain wider recognition if they gave up making it altogether and threw in their lot with straightforward pop music, to its current exalted position where grime MCs are stars, capable of gatecrashing the charts without the aid of the mainstream music industry: “No label, no PR, no publisher, no manager, no PA, no stylist,” as the Twitter bio of Skepta’s brother JME proudly boasts. At the time of writing, Konnichiwa is battling it out with Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool to unseat Beyoncé from the top of the album charts, while its author is potentially teetering on the brink of even bigger things overseas: Drake, for one, appears to be intent on furthering his career in the US, curiously announcing that he’s signing to Skepta’s indie label Boy Better Know, showing off his recently inked tattoo of the label’s initials and posting a photo of himself waving a copy of Konnichiwa at the camera on Instagram.

All this appears to have brought its share of problems for Skepta. “Mad pressures from every angle,” he disconsolately mutters on the phone to Chip. “I’m too ambitious to be with the mandem on the road but I can’t be up there with them people, either – I’m too black. I feel like I’m in limbo.”

Chip is having none of it. “You’re going mad, fam,” he reassures him. “We ain’t seen nothing like this before.” But the sense of an artist poised between two worlds haunts Konnichiwa. At one extreme, there are songs that clearly look towards the US market – traditionally resistant to UK rappers – not least the R&B-based Ladies Hit Squad, which debuted on Drake’s OVO Sound Radio Show, and the Pharrell-produced Numbers. At the other, there is a great deal of musical and lyrical underlining of Skepta’s commitment to the grime scene, a lot of it placed at the start of the album: the opening tracks are a thrillingly unreconstructed splurge of choppy rhythms, low-rent electronics and pummelling bass.

Lyrics opens with the sound of Wiley pleading for calm during what seems to have been an extremely lively night at Watford’s Destiny nightclub in 2001. The same rapper’s 2004 single Pies forms the basis of That’s Not Me, while his verse on Corn on the Curb goes back even further into the history of UK bass music, mentioning drum’n’bass MCs Skibadee, Bassman and Trigga. The lyrics are packed with reflections on grime’s early days – the look of old videos, quotations from Dizzee Rascal lyrics, reminiscences about appearances at raves – and assurances that, at root, nothing has changed: “Boy better know a man went to the Brits on a train,” he says on title track. “Man shut down Wireless and then I walked home in the rain.”

You can understand why Skepta feels duty-bound to reassure the world he’s not planning on jumping on any passing bandwagons: before the career rethink heralded by his soul-searching 2012 mixtape Blacklisted and cemented by his back-to-basics 2014 single That’s Not Me, Skepta spent four years gamely releasing pop-rap singles of varying degrees of cheesiness, with varying degrees of success. But on the basis of Konnichiwa, any uneasiness he feels about his current artistic position is unfounded: for a man apparently in limbo – and for all the complaints about his workload he relates on Text Me Back – he carries himself with a real confidence throughout. The straightforward grime tracks are uniformly great: they reach twin pinnacles on Crime Riddim’s constantly shifting, claustrophobic backdrop of clanks and martial horn blasts, and Man, shot through with a wailing, shivering guitar sample. Moreover, he never sounds cowed in the presence of his US counterparts. Listening to Numbers, it seems that Pharrell might be trying hard to fit in with Skepta’s artistic vision rather than vice-versa: his music is sparse and menacing, and he gamely joins in with the lyrical jabs at major labels, tactfully forgetting that he’s signed to that legendary bastion of redoubtable indie ethics, Sony.

For all that the album self-evidently has one eye fixed on the States, you never get the sense of an artist subjugating his own personality to succeed abroad. It’s not just that the lyrics throughout are dextrous and sharp and funny, although they are. It’s that even his most virulent braggadocio is underscored by a very winning, very British kind of bathos. Held in custody on Crime Riddim, he becomes concerned by his desire to “spend a penny”; among the list of menaces detailed on Corn on the Curb lurks the threat to “shower man down like Fireman Sam”; and while enumerating his many bad-boy credentials, he brags that he sometimes smokes in no-smoking areas.

What Americans will make of it is an intriguing question: for all of Drake’s cheerleading, Azealia Banks’ recent outbursts on Twitter have underlined the kind of resistance grime faces in the US. Over here, it’s another story entirely, the ongoing plot of which Konnichiwa is clearly going to do nothing to alter. “I’ll bet I make you respect me when you see the mandem selling out Wembley,” Skepta snaps at one point. Given his current trajectory, you wouldn’t bet against that happening.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Best albums of 2016: No 9 Konnichiwa by Skepta
It won the Mercury prize and sold grime to a new generation – most of all, the rapper’s debut album made British music cool again

Rachel Aroesti

06, Dec, 2016 @8:05 AM

Article image
Ghetts: Conflict of Interest review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week
Big-label backing and unusual, beautiful arrangements should finally propel Ghetts, long a critic’s favourite, into the big time

Alexis Petridis

11, Feb, 2021 @1:32 PM

Article image
Stormzy: Gang Signs and Prayer review – teeming with original ideas
The south London MC arrived on the grime scene fully formed and at just the right time – but it’s his lyrical gifts that have made him a star

Alexis Petridis

23, Feb, 2017 @3:00 PM

Article image
Dizzee Rascal: Raskit review – the grime kingpin reclaims his crown
Returning to a pop world in which the music he pioneered is huge, Dizzee has gone back to basics with a stripped-down album that shows off his lyrical skills

Alexis Petridis

20, Jul, 2017 @11:00 AM

Article image
Wireless festival review – British rap stars show Americans how it's done
In his first major set since leaving prison, J Hus made a joyful homecoming and outshone much of the A-list American talent – the irrepressible Cardi B aside

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

08, Jul, 2019 @11:12 AM

Article image
Skepta review – grime’s top boy
Ahead of his first US tour, the bling-free king of grime performs a brilliant set with an array of star helpers

Kitty Empire

09, Apr, 2017 @8:00 AM

Skepta: Doin' It Again – review
Skepta, the self-professed 'king of grime', has launched his bid for international recognition, writes Killian Fox

Killian Fox

30, Jan, 2011 @12:05 AM

Article image
Parklife festival review – Manchester turns night to day with punishing party energy
Liam Gallagher is incongruous, but prompts massive singalongs, while the xx and Confidence Man are other big successes

Daniel Dylan Wray

11, Jun, 2018 @12:44 PM

Article image
Liam Gallagher, Skepta and the xx to headline Manchester's Parklife festival
Big-name pop, rap and R&B stars flock to Heaton Park weekender, with Lorde, NERD and J Hus also joining the bill

Laura Snapes

31, Jan, 2018 @9:18 AM

Article image
Boy Better Know: ‘We should have been playing big festivals six years ago’
With Drake on their label and Corbyn in their contacts, grime collective BBK are big-time. Skepta, JME and the rest of the crew get in the Glastonbury mood, talking vegan food, politics and adventures in the healing field

Kate Hutchinson

22, Jun, 2017 @5:31 PM