REVIEW: slowthai’s "TYRON" is the perfect follow-up to "Nothing Great About Britain"
...and his public breakdown.
It’s become a bit controversial to like slowthai - and he knows it. Every review of his sophomore record, TYRON, mentions his minor meltdown at the NME Awards last year. I get it. It was a bit gross when he told comedian Katherine Ryan “you ain’t never had someone play with you like I’ll play with you.” Obviously crude, but she clearly laughed it off and gave it back to him (you can find the video on YouTube, she uses language I’m not sure I’m allowed to repeat here, but it’s a pretty good response). Anyway, I’m not one to get offended on behalf of others when they’ve made it clear they weren’t offended themselves, so I think we can strike this one off as a blip on the radar of a comedian with much better things to do, despite its newfound place within the Hall of Fame for memorably uncomfortable award show moments but, alas, I’m not the bearer of public opinion.
There was also the moment at the Mercury Prize awards in which slowthai carried out the realistic-looking severed head of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. For a certain section of the British public (read: Tories), this was perceived as a significant slight against the highest seat in elected politics. slowthai hasn’t ever apologized for it, instead doubling down by saying, “They’re [the people in power] not the ones queueing at the food banks, not the ones navigating Universal Credit and not the ones having to deal with systematic oppression and hate crimes at the hands of privileged politicians who say what they want without fear and consequence.”
With these things in mind, people on both sides of the political spectrum have some kind of beef with slowthai. That is what it is; once you’ve been cancelled by someone, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever change their mind. For those of us left over who don’t think the NME thing was really that bad, wouldn’t mind seeing Boris face the guillotine, and think this Tweet would kinda translate into a banger, TYRON is a triumphant second record from one of the most creative voices in UK hip hop.
The first half of the record (which is split into two disks/sides) addresses his brushes with controversy directly, most notably with “CANCELLED,” a collaboration with Skepta. Not only is having a Skepta feature a flex in itself, the hard beat and shiny synths in the mix make for engaging listening. Is it immature to take aim at everyone who cancelled you for something you’ve already apologized for? Yeah, sure. But the verses on here go off and the production is fun, so I’m not going to point it out too hard.
The big features keep coming with “MAZZA,” an A$AP Rocky collab. The A$AP verse is one of his best features in recent memory, but it doesn’t come in until just over halfway through the track. The payoff is worth it, but less lead time would’ve been preferred. The production had to grow on me, though. It’s nice now that I’ve sat with it, it just lacks a bit of oomph. It doesn’t feel right that a great A$AP Rocky verse would be on an otherwise meh track, but here we are.
What differentiates the first side of the record from the second are its heavy beats and horror film-esque production. There’s a palpable sense of dread across side one, be it in the Kwes Darko-led chorus of “DEAD” (“I am dead, I am God, I am here for the end of time” feels like it should be a quote from a Robert Eggers film) or the warped instrumentals in “45 SMOKE”. This horror influence becomes explicit when we consider the “CANCELLED” music video, which features slowthai and Skepta recreating various iconic gory horror moments. It suits slowthai well, allowing him to explore his typical themes in a more frightening manner befitting their seriousness. With so much focus on drugs, prison, poverty, and mental illness, it feels like slowthai has finally found a sound that works in aiding his message.
“PLAY WITH FIRE” is also a good side one track. It’s got a little harpsichord, so I can’t complain. The beat hits extremely on the choruses, too. If you’re looking to get a feel for the record, I’d recommend this one. Not to mention, it’s a great lead-in to the more contemplative second disk.
It kicks off with “i tried” (note the undercase titles in juxtaposition to the more bold, uppercase first disk), a lovely Trey Gruber-sampling track with slow, confessional verses. It’s lovely, if not a bit reminiscent of “Gorgeous” from Nothing Great About Britain. This isn’t a bad thing; “Gorgeous” is one of the best tracks on that record. If anything, “i tried” is an evolution of that sound and flow.
Disk two isn’t all slow songs, though. “terms,” featuring Dominic Fike and Denzel Curry, is one of the most interesting on the entire record. The beat is sexy and slinking, but the lyrics are about the dangers of fame, not the allure of sex. The Fike chorus compliments slowthai well, though it would’ve been nice to hear Curry get his own verse. He’s severely underutilized here and could’ve changed a good track to a great one. Regardless, this one’s been on repeat.
The influence of slowthai’s friends are heavier on this side than the first. Deb Never features on “push” and it sounds more like her song than his, though it still works for slowthai. “nhs” has clear BROCKHAMPTON influence (slowthai is good friends with Bearface) in the form of pitched up Kevin Abstract-esque vocals in the chorus. “nhs” is the softest we see slowthai on the whole album. The whole track is about appreciating the things you have, whether there’s a global pandemic sweeping the country or not. The message is nice and the chorus is catchy, even if they’re both a bit played out.
“feel away” is the best track on disk two, however. Featuring James Blake and Mount Kimbie, it fuses the best of all three artists sounds to craft a love note to slowthai’s deceased younger brother. It would’ve fit well on the latter half of Nothing Great About Britain, but manages to be much more mature than anything on that record. Bringing Blake on was an inspired decision. He and slowthai mesh much better than you’d assume they do. It builds to a stunning high; the Mount Kimbie touch is certainly present. It interpolates both “Yesterday” by The Beatles and “Dreamlover” by Mariah Carey. It would’ve been almost impossible to make a bad song out of the moving pieces and they certainly don’t disappoint.
The record ends with “adhd,” perhaps the most self-defeating song on the project. It holds in tension at the beginning before exploding into a furious final verse. It’s probably the most angry we’ve heard slowthai, but it’s only at himself. It ends the record on a dour note, but it’s fitting for an artist that’s so self-aware about the people he’s hurt, about the things he’s done that he isn’t proud of. Despite slowthai being a “cancelled” artist, I came out of the record sympathizing with his own alternating sense of guilt and bravado. Perhaps this is what he wants me to feel and I’m just the sucker for falling for it. But I don’t think so. Perhaps it’s enough that slowthai is a talented, eloquent artist that at least has the emotional intelligence to understand when he’s done wrong, even if he’s probably still going to fuck up. At the end of the day, we all will, right? But I digress.
My final verdict is that TYRON is a great album, simple as that. It’s textured and diverse in its sounds while analyzing ills of all sorts, be they societal or personal, and it makes for a hard-hitting record. slowthai isn’t for everyone and he’s not trying to be, but maybe check out the record before writing him off. You’ll thank me later.
McKinzie Smith is a former film student from Portland, OR. In her adolescence, she followed Fall Out Boy up and down the West Coast. She now considers herself very cool and normal and only a little bit emo. She now spends most of her time listening to Charli XCX in her kitchen and writing articles about things she likes.