It’s not too difficult to imagine the impulse behind a song like “CANCELLED,” the second single from the British rapper Slowthai’s new album, Tyron. The track features Skepta and follows a familiar revenge fantasy: our anti-hero MCs versus the proverbial naysayers, who in this case are the online agents of so-called cancel culture. At this point it’s an exhausting form of discourse. There are few things more unappealing than thinking about what people have to say on the internet. But throughout Tyron, Slowthai appears to be reckoning a punk-inspired brashness with a broader culture of accountability. The result is both illuminating and one-dimensional in equal measure.
Slowthai is of course no stranger to controversy. Following the success of his 2019 debut Nothing Great About Britain, the rapper, who drew comparisons to legendary UK acts like The Streets, appeared at the NME Awards where he made inappropriate comments towards the stand-up comic Katherine Ryan and eventually was escorted off stage by security. He apologized, and the dust-up would become a relatively forgotten relic of before-times, but it did offer a messy end to an otherwise promising rise for the young musician. Slowthai’s jagged energy was a welcome dose of chaos in the world of hip-hop. The seering political invective of his debut gave voice to a universal frustration with an elder generation that had left young people with little hope for their future.
Despite a handful of missed landings, Tyron still admirably inspires the kind of mosh-pit energy that feels nearly romantic in an era of closed venues and social distancing. “VEX” has the stuttering drums of early Memphis rap and finds Slowthai firmly in his sweet spot, shout-rapping a dizzying verse that balances a devil may care ethos with genuine introspection. On “DEAD,” things are slowed down, only slightly, and Slowthai flexes a knack for wordplay and in his own way, lets his guard down. The Kwes Darko-assisted hook could very well be a mantra at the start of a yoga class: “They can take away my flesh, but they’ll never take my mind.”
Slowthai told Rolling Stone earlier this year that he quit drinking, and Tyron certainly feels like a record about new beginnings. For one, its title is the rapper’s first name — a gesture of self-knowledge and accountability. It’s also divided into two parts. The front end, with song titles in all-caps, is full of the high-octane style most fans are familiar with. The latter half, with titles in lowercase, finds Slowthai in relatively new territory. The bpms are lower and he’s is in a place of genuine introspection. On “I Tried,” we open with a sample of the late Chicago-based indie artist Trey Gruber singing, “I tried to take my life.” The track offers a rare look into Slowthai’s interiority. “Life got me in a headlock, back and forth like a hockey puck,” he raps. “Always wanted muscles, lack of strength made me headstrong.”
It’s this honesty that makes the second half of Tyron stand out as the record’s greatest strength. On “Focus” Slowthai’s restless energy is harnessed to an appealing effect. His punk ethos isn’t subdued, but it is more focused. He’s clearly battling demons, and there are glimmers of genuine self-reflection hidden in the rapper’s id-driven sputter. On the Deb Never-assisted “Push” we come close to a breakthrough: “I grew up ’round toxic, and people can’t see / ‘Cause they live in a pond with some dumb fish,” he raps.
The album’s emotional crest comes on “Feel Away,” where James Blake and Mount Kimbie offer a heaping dose of pathos to Slowthai’s guarded heartache. It manages to sidestep the easy sad boy tropes of his contemporaries and land on something more tender. The same could be said for much of Tyron which, while not as evolved as it might think, is a solid effort from a young artist learning to get out of his own way.