J Hus – Big Conspiracy review: British rap star lights up his own lane

(Black Butter Limited)
More introspective and subdued following a spell in prison – though with libido intact – J Hus is still masterfully blending styles

Earlier this week, it became apparent that J Hus’s new album, the follow-up to 2017’s Brit and Mercury-nominated Common Sense, had leaked. It was a throwback to the early noughties. Twenty-odd years ago, online leaks were the great music industry bugbear, but you don’t hear much about them after the switch from downloads to streaming – and there were dire imprecations from the J Hus camp: “Just know that everything u touch from here on will go to shit,” tweeted his long-time producer Jae5, before the rapper, who last year claimed to practise west African black magic, weighed in with: “I wake up and heavily curse anyone plotting against me.” Enterprising types braved the curses and attempted to flog the leaked album – which looks to have a different tracklisting to the finished product – for 10 quid a pop, but J Hus’s audience rallied around him: you couldn’t move on social media for fans announcing they weren’t going to download it and calling whoever did it a paigon.

That someone believed there were people out there willing to spend a tenner in order to hear an album – or a version thereof – three days before they could stream the real thing for free tells you something about the degree of anticipation surrounding Big Conspiracy. The Top 10 success of Common Sense represented a coming-out ball for a London sub-genre that no one could seem to decide what to call: Afro swing, trapfrobeat, Afro bashment. The struggle to find a name for it made a weird kind of sense, because the contents of Common Sense were hard to pin down: its sound kept shifting from hard-hitting to melodic and commercial, from music rooted in bashment or Afrobeats to stuff not unlike 90s US hip-hop. What it didn’t sound like was anything else UK rap had to offer – no mean feat given the sheer quantity of artists achieving crossover success.

Understandably, expectations for its successor run high, stoked by the fact that J Hus spent three months of the two-and-a-half years since its release in prison for carrying a knife. It did nothing to dent his popularity – the first single from Big Conspiracy, Must Be, reached No 5 – but listening to the album itself, the episode seems to have impacted on his work.

Big Conspiracy is more introspective and subdued than its predecessor. The distorted vocals on Fortune Teller snarl, but there’s nothing here quite as upfront and raw as Common Sense’s Clartin. The lyrics, too, frequently suggest a man who’s had a considerable amount of time on his hands with not much to do but think. There’s a lot of contemplative stuff about knowing yourself – “how do you live your life when your life’s a facade?” he ponders, backed by melancholy piano chords, on Deeper Than Rap – and references to a grab-bag of spirituality that ranges from the aforementioned juju to Rastafarian ideas about the “Babylon system”. Then again, not everything on Big Conspiracy deals with an ascetic life of contemplation. There’s a fairly phenomenal amount of shagging involved too, not least on Play Play, his collaboration with Nigerian star Burna Boy.

J Hus: Big Conspiracy album artwork.
J Hus: Big Conspiracy album artwork. Photograph: Publicity Image

What hasn’t changed is his ability to switch between an array of musical styles – the Afrobeats-flavoured Love Peace and Prosperity; Repeat’s collaboration with current dancehall queen Koffee; the mesh of live guitar and bass that underpins Helicopter. More impressive still is that the album’s musical transitions never jar. As on his debut, they feel natural and unforced, an expression of growing up in London surrounded by an array of different cultural influences, tied together not just by J Hus’s flow, but his pop smarts – he has an unfailing ability to come up with earworm choruses. The latter skill is among his more overlooked, but it means that no matter how sombre his meditations on race, crime and identity get, virtually everything here feels like a single. The latest one is No Denying, and the ability to make something radio-friendly out of samples of high-tension soundtrack strings, scrabbling sax improv and divebombing bass is not to be sniffed at.

When the news of the album’s leak initially broke, J Hus seemed to take it hard, announcing that if he couldn’t be in control of his own music, he might give up making it entirely and concentrate on developing his fashion line. After you hear Big Conspiracy, that seems very rash. For one thing, he sounds completely in control throughout. For another, it would be a waste: the charts are currently packed with British rappers, but not all of them have their own niche quite as clearly delineated as his. Big Conspiracy leaves you wanting to hear even more.

This week Alexis listened to

Thundercat – Black Qualls

Abetted by 80s soul/gospel hero Steve Arrington, Thundercat’s return throws up rubber-limbed funk with a side-order of psychedelic weirdness.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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