Son Raw is a national treasure
There’s no analog to Wiley. Take Cam’ron cockiness, Nas’ street knowledge, Madlib’s work rate and the wild innovation of Pharell at his best and you’re part of the way there, but what about the fact that he basically birthed an entire genre? Or shepherded dozens of emcees and producers? Surely no one has ever been so forthright about their desires to cross over, but by the same token few artists are as dedicated to their underground followings. It all makes for a bag of contradictions that don’t lend themselves to coherent statements: all of Wiley’s 10 albums (and dozens of mixtapes and group albums) contain thrilling moments but they usually also include a couple of stinkers. On Snakes and Lad.ders however, Grime’s godfather bats way above average, delivering an album that stays true to the sound he’s created while celebrating its success.
While my posts have mostly covered developments in Grime’s instrumental underground, there’s no denying that the genre’s A-list have had a fantastic year. From Skepta winning a MOBO to Jammer expanding his LOTM brand to Meridian Dan landing a smash hit with German Whip, the zeitgeist is finally blowing in Grime’s favor, and Wiley’s ready to celebrate. First single On a Level aims directly for the genre’s core fan base with furious bars and a fiery Skepta production, a major departure from the crossover material that usually promote a Wiley album. This idea that the general public are finally ready to embrace Grime on its on terms is a recurring theme throughout the project: From the Outside sees Wiley wrestling with the idea that crossover tunes aren’t for him while Badman bigs up the scores of UK emcees that have followed his path over the past 10 years. Speaking of which, quite a few are present, from scene legend Flirta D to up and comer Stormzy, all of which come correct. It’s Boy Better know curmudgeon and Vegeta-from-Dragonball Z-impersonator JME that steals the show however by cleverly telling Grime’s critics to fuck off, in so many words.
Snakes and Ladders is still a Wiley album, which means it doesn’t all work. I wanted to like Lonely, a collaboration with longtime inspirations Dipsett, but the bootleg Mustard beat does no one any favors. Likewise, no name rapper Hollow the Don somehow gets an acapella track to himself, something no one needs to hear more than once. Then there’s the fact that while all the other tracks are good, they also mostly play it safe. Maybe it’s unfair to ask a 30-odd year old rapper to go for the absolutely weirdest shit the scene is producing right now and nothing here is traditional by any stretch, but since every risk here pays off, you wish he’d take a few more. After all, it’s the dueling intensity and calm of standout tracks like Bloodline and What’s On Your Mind that truly make the album, and if there’s on thing in life that’s certain, it’s that Wiley will always leave you wanting more.
Nitpicking aside, Snakes and Ladders will go down as one of Wiley’s strongest projects, and it’s impossible not to root for him after years of label troubles and crossover attempts. Imminently quotable and elusive as ever, the UK’s best rapper is finally getting his due, and he didn’t even have to drop an electro track to do it.