Despite a Top 10 debut album, 8 NME nominations in one year, and widespread collaborations ranging from Skepta to Gorillaz to Brockhampton, it’s still apparent that to many, slowthai remains a mystery, wrapped in an enigma….Sometimes, wrapped in an absolute donkey.
Truth be told, it’s never been easy to put one’s finger on slowthai, even as a musician. Is he a grime MC making punk music or a punk MC making grime? His flow alone is like nothing anyone may have heard before, treading a line somewhere between Juelz Santana and the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten. Even more contrasting, however, has been thai’s persona in the public consciousness. It seems that no matter what positive stamp he tries to leave, a negative side always tends to blemish it. Case in point, the 2020 NME Awards, in which, after getting 8 nominations (including the win for ‘Hero’ of the Year) he instead made headlines for his crude comments towards comedienne Katherine Ryan, as well as jumping into the crowd whilst intoxicated. Certainly it could have gone better.
Thanks to this contrasting wave of fame and controversy, the approach of slowthai’s anticipated follow-up album, TYRON, raised myriad ponderings. Which route is slowthai going to take? Is he going to prove himself to be a hero or a villain? The answer, however, is a lot more simple than people may have anticipated: slowthai is all of these things and more, and he’s not changing anytime soon. He embraces every contrasting view that’s labelled on him because he’s had to live with contrasts all his life. Though it was not eventually included in the record, the non-album single “Thoughts” acted as an ideal taster to this theme. Slowthai starts the track off by stating that there is a “fine line between love and hate”, and that the two shouldn’t always be divided. In other words, he is embracing his label as both a hero and a villain, stating that both sides make up who he is. He gets even more introspective in this viewpoint, expressing how he was always “Too black for the white, too white for the black”, speaking volumes to the kind of treatment thai has endured even before his rise to fame, with people looking at his Bajan-Irish heritage and trying to put it in a box.
These themes are embraced wholeheartedly throughout TYRON, and not merely in the content of its songs, but the composition of the album itself. Thai splits the tracks into two ‘discs’, the first half a supremely confident and energetic embodiment of his newfound fame and notoriety, with the second half giving a more sombre, self-reflective viewpoint on thai’s feelings and mental health. Within just 35 minutes of total runtime, thai admits to being an icon, a rascal, an oaf, and everything in between, leaving nothing to rest.
The first half of the album wastes no time in embracing its role, exploding with an almost eerie, horror film-like energy that’s complemented by an all-star cast of features, none more noteworthy than grime master extraordinaire Skepta on the track “Cancelled”. As the title suggests, the song acts as a proverbial middle finger to anyone who wishes to “cancel” thai for his behaviours in or out of the spotlight, deeming himself inherently “uncancellable”. With devil-may-care lyrics coupled with addictively hard-hitting percussions, the manic energy of “Cancelled” is a perfect allusion to slowthai’s public image, for no matter what happens to him, he feels that he cannot be stopped. In fact, the whole first disc acts as a quasi-celebration of slowthai’s newfound success, taking all of the positives and negatives that come with it, from the public to the romantic to the narcotic. The darkness of these tracks could even be seen as a descent into mental instability, as his life is changed forever under this new cloud of fake friends, loveless romance, and frequent intoxication. But the energy with which thai raps over strangely creepy instrumentals shows that he’s absolutely along for the ride, not fearing what these experiences would do to him as a person or a musician.
You pass the middle of the album, things then take a massive turn left.t Songs like “Dead” and “Play With Fire” act as precursors to the project’s second disc, where thai begins to look at life from an inward perspective, dealing with issues of abandonment, injustice, and especially depression. Though the thai of songs like “I Tried” and “Push” seems unable to climb out of a deep mental hole, then track “Terms” come in to shed a glimmer of hope in that “[things] could be worse”. With Dominic Fike and Denzel Curry acting as perhaps the most complimentary features on the record, this is a track in which thai looks at the negative pressures that came with fame, explaining that although he “never even went to uni” he’s now being viewed as a “National Treasure” with “people relying on him”. This viewpoint, which contrasts so heavily to the cocky, self-promoting vibes of the first disc, explains that he may have as much confusion about his identity as most of the fans and press do. He then, however, puts a fitting bow on top of this melange of perspectives with the single “NHS”, which dives deep into thai’s interpretation of life both before and amid the coronavirus pandemic, asking through metaphors such as “what’s good music without silly songs? Abusers with no sober mums?”. Here he is alluding to the concept that, for life to truly feel complete, it requires darkness along with light, sorrow along with happiness. Neither the good nor the bad should be ignored. That, in its essence, is the concept of TYRON – both the album and the man.
Slowthai’s latest record continues to express the very characteristic that won him the adoration of countless British youth: he is who he is, and he embraces it. The good and the bad, the sincere and the sinful, slowthai will not regret, apologise, or change anytime soon. Fitting, in that case, that he went with his real name, Tyron, as the album’s title. For no matter what he does in the music studios, and the award shows or even in his personal life, it is all him. It is all Tyron.