Son Raw stick to his roots like gum on a tuber.
While the UK media remains fascinated with grime as a social force and demographic—see the recent #Grime4Corbyn campaign—the clock is ticking on its interest in the actual sound. This is of course inevitable, as the UK music press has always been obsessed with novelty and grime at its most uncut, which has always seen vocal opposition from poptimists and the kind of sordid individuals who thought grindie was a good idea 10 years ago. And so we got a Stormzy chart-topper with perfunctory grime by numbers and horrid gospel rap, and a strong J Hus album whose media attention nevertheless feels like a concerted effort to move the dial towards more accessible sounds.
This shouldn’t be a problem for listeners. Grime was great when the media paid attention in 2003 and stayed great in 2009 when no one gave two shits. The scene’s infrastructure is stronger now than it was then, so it’ll weather the inevitable downturn. For emcees however, the ticking clock poses a conundrum: How do you make a go of it against media headwinds, while remaining true to your sound?
For Manga Saint Hilare, questions of status and loyalty are front and center on Outbursts from the Outskirts. Simply put, the Roll Deep veteran doesn’t sound tremendously happy with where he’s at, and Outbursts is a raging exorcism of fake friends and industry trends over Lewi B’s frigid squarewaves and hollow drums. His sonic and emotional north stars are obvious: Boy in The Corner and Treadin’ on Thin Ice, grime classics about striving for a better life in the face of poverty and adversity. Throw in a decade of recriminations against the industry, and the album veers perilously close to struggle rap, but never topples over, with Manga’s bars remaining furious but astute. Think an Eski Mood Muzik, not what your local mixtape dealer is slanging.
He’s also generous in sharing the stage, inviting peers, elders, and newcomers to spray bars both in collaborations and on a series of “outburst” interludes: for a guy raging against the machine, his credentials come endorsed by a who’s who of grime music including Flowdan, President T, JME, Novelist, Jamakabi, and more. Ultimately, the album stands toe to toe with last year’s 1-800-Dinosaur release from Trim: a brilliant statement of intent from an ex-Roll Deep general set to prove that grime is more than the voice of young black Britain; it’s the voice of the voiceless. That the media would prefer black pop is not his problem.
Blay Vision is another young artist expanding grime’s parameters without jumping ship to more commercially accessible sounds. Previously known mostly as a producer, his The Vision project on Lit City Trax kept things icy and minimal, but now he’s making the leap forward with a full vocal album, and his verses instantly elevate the proceedings. With his bars firmly rooted in Tottenham (there’s more than a bit of JME influence in those sung hooks), he’s free to combine grime’s iciness with trap and drill flourishes. Though far grimier than the Road Rap currently dominating Youtube, the overall effect is to capture the best of both worlds—the bleakness of drill and the weirdness of grime.
It’s a tough balance but an essential one: with grime hitting the big time, it’ll be key for emcees to remain close to their core audience to avoid drifting into the kind of stadium-sized disconnect that took previous UK music genres from the streets to the student clubs. Better yet, to his credit, Blay is equally committed to speaking his truth as he is to developing new sounds and there’s no bait eski reuse here, even as the mood remains aligned with grime’s best. It remains to be seen how grime adapts to shifting music industry priorities, but as long as the scene keeps producing albums this strong, it’ll be in rude health.