Album cover via slowthai/Instagram
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Will Hagle needs every song he listens to in the car to be turn single bpm.
Putting on any slowthai song transports you directly into his physical frame. His eyes become yours; you gaze out at his wretched England together. He’s the rare narrator who doesn’t tell you what he sees, he shows you what it feels like to see it with him. On his latest album, UGLY, slowthai twists the eyes he and the listener share all the way around. Aims them at the back of his skull. Confronts his brain. On UGLY, slowthai doesn’t rehash the personal reportage of his previous work. He engages with himself, in the most extensive and vulnerable manner he’s done on record.
In the context of slowthai’s full-length discography, third album UGLY is both a deviation and an evolution. Working backwards, slowthai’s first album, Nothing Great About Britain, was as much a depiction of average Northampton young adulthood as it was a political manifesto. For American audiences, he was a street-level journalist for the newsy trending topics we get whiffs of across the pond: Brexit, the royal family, etc. His ability to not just recognize but directly call out all the bullshit that makes us so angry characterized him as a poetic prophet for the marginalized and disaffected.
On the sophomore LP TYRON, titled after his given name, slowthai hinted at exploring his internal nature. But he didn’t fully commit. The album repeated formulas. The music was melancholic and simple. Perfect for nostalgic reflection, but not for much deeper. He was like a therapy patient holding back crucial details in order to avoid confronting the harshest realities.
With its turn towards live instrumentation, UGLY pulls from Nothing Great About Britain’s post-punk influences (“Doorman”) and the hounding of TYRON’s single “nhs,” to do something deeper than what we’ve come to expect from a rapper’s Abrupt Rock Shift. With a developed soundscape, Tyron addresses distressing existential questions with uninhibited honesty. The album opens with “Yum,” a heavy breathing bacchanal and a soliloquy about his frustrating experience in therapy. His therapist’s advice is Meditation 101: “Tyron, you just gotta learn to breathe. Imagine you’re on a staircase and each step you take is a step down from being on that level.” This recommendation just makes him angrier. He launches straight into a profane verse about, among other things, f*cking and not giving a f*ck.
Stylistically, “Yum” is a misdirection. It sounds like a continuation from the first half of TYRON. There’s a dark electronic beat with pulsing kicks and low stuttering synth bass. slowthai’s rapped vocals are punctuated with horn-like synth stabs. The lyrics are slowthai at his most depraved. Uninhibited hedonism. He admits that in his desperate pursuit of physical pleasure, he can’t even cum. All chase. No relief. It’s as honest as it is disgusting. The song ends with him repeating “Excuse me while I self destruct,” before he leads the imaginary crowd of listeners in a frenzied guided meditation: “Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.”
If “Yum” is emblematic of Tyron’s despair, the rest of the album shows his efforts to climb out of those depths. UGLY stands for “U Gotta Love Yourself,” and Tyron’s lyrics suggest he means warts and all. On “HAPPY,” he asserts that it’s okay to cry. On “Falling,” he croons about feeling like he’s drifting away over guitar chords and ballad-esque drums with shimmery cymbals. The tone is reminiscent of other English rock bands who’ve experienced crossover success: Kasabian, Hadouken, even Kaiser Chiefs. Although many songs are upbeat and poppy, the crunch and distortion is a contrast to past self-reflective songs like the aforementioned “nhs.” UGLY is full of grit. The emotive nature of the music accentuates the filth of slowthai’s psyche he exposes in his lyrics.
Kwes Darko, the producer who’s been collaborating with slowthai since the earliest days, contributes to UGLY’s sound – as do Dan Carey and Ethan P. Flynn, the London-based genre-hopping vagabond who co-wrote multiple tracks on FKA twigs’ MAGDALENE. Flynn sings on both “Sooner” and “Never Again.” His voice is less harsh than Tyron’s, but meshes well and also adds a soft texture. On songs like “Sooner,” slowthai sings too, The beat drops out to emphasize his melodic attempt at one particularly somber line: “You are what you eat. I must be nothing.”
Similar to the hedonistic nature of “Yum,” “HAPPY” opens with the line “Thinking with my dick / My head is split / It’s so hard for both sides to commit.” Tyron references the dichotomy between sexual urge and rational thought, but “My head is split” is emblematic of UGLY’s most prominent themes. Tyron, like everyone, bounces between negative and positive emotions. He suggests over and over again across the album that he wants to be happy, wants to feel good. But the world is ugly. That makes him sad and angry.
“Selfish” is the album’s most revealing song in terms of the interplay between the flawed society slowthai’s been railing against and the similar disjointedness within him. Tyron says it “makes me sick when I look at the world because nothing seems real.” A therapist-esque voice in the background asks him to explain why he feels this way. The chorus implies he’s just thinking for himself. Over swirling, dissonant psychedelic guitars, slowthai sings about how we all search for something, and we get what we deserve. It aligns again with the hedonism of “Yum,” showing the disastrous effects false pursuits of happiness can have. If we’re looking for pleasure, we’re bound to find pain.
The post-punk approach of UGLY is different from the grime orientation of his first two LPs, and the sound helps him open up in more profound ways, but his experimentation doesn’t venture far outside slowthai’s comfort zone. It’s a natural evolution, and occasionally too indebted to styles that have been proven to work in the past. “F*ck It Puppet” has a call-and-response structure that sounds too much like “We Cry Together.” “Wotz Funny,” an early contender for the album’s name, would be a better fit musically on one of the two other albums. On UGLY, Tyron is searching for a lot of answers and is blunt about not finding them. He’s never been easily classifiable, but songs like “F*ck It Puppet” and “Wotz Funny” suggest that he’s also still searching for a musical style best suited for his sensibilities. UGLY is an album of contradictions: poppy but dark, happy but sad, self-analytical but lacking ultimate clarity. The album is about the imperfections of Tyron’s psyche, so it makes sense that it wouldn’t be perfect.
Like the external issues slowthai has confronted throughout his career, the internal problems he addresses on UGLY don’t have any clear or obvious resolution. There is no standard, expected redemption arc. Deep breathing exercises offer only temporary relief. The best he can do is acknowledge the ugliness both inside and outside of him, and do what he can to make life beautiful again. As much as we desire clean narratives, the actual nature of healing is full of uneven oscillation.
On Nothing Great About Britain’s “Grow Up,” Tyron told us nothing can last, and if you don’t move forward, you’re stuck in the past. On UGLY, he proves this to be true. Tyron exposes the split fragments of his broken insides. Then he swivels his eyes back out at the world, acknowledging that the injustices he’s shouted out against on past records are a large part of the reason his mind looks the way it does. His eyes keep rotating around and around, inviting us to look along with him. To find solace and pleasure in all the ugliness we’re unable to evade.