Album Review: slowthai, ‘UGLY’

    No one has flaunted his introspective streak quite like slowthai. While he rose to fame thanks to the incisive political commentary of 2019’s Nothing Great About Britain, his status as a celebrated rapper in today’s culture – especially one whose career has been shrouded in controversy – has required him to look inward. slowthai’s last album, Tyron, did include a somewhat heavy-handed takedown of cancel culture, but its two-part structure made way for a nuanced, if rather disjointed, portrait of the artist beyond his public persona. Though it may not have received the same acclaim as his debut, it was a compelling effort that not only saw him overcoming his resistance to maturity but opened new avenues for expressing it. On his new record, UGLY, Tyron Frampton continues to tackle the contradictions within himself – the title is an acronym for U Gotta Love Yourself, and “self-reflection” is the first word we hear him speak – but commits to more of a single lane, narrowing his focus, and, unfortunately, some of his ambition.

    Nowadays, a mainstream album built around therapy is pretty common across genres. In 2019, Dave won some of Britain’s most prestigious awards for his album Psychodrama. Last year, Kendrick Lamar made his grand return with an album doubling as a messy, cathartic therapy session that went well over an hour. In pop, that kind of framing is almost expected. Last year’s Hold the Girl brought Rina Sawayama the title of “pop therapist”; a few months after Tyron came out, Anne-Marie, whom slowthai is dating, released an album called Therapy. This context is relevant because UGLY is refreshingly not that kind of therapy album, deliberately stumbling around the concept more than channelling it into music. “I’ve been lacking motivation/ I need an innervention,” he declares on ‘Yum’, his clumsy (but practically indiscernible) wordplay undercutting his urgency. He then relays an exchange with his therapist whose breathing exercises have him questioning “What am I paying for?” before spiralling into a frenzy: “Excuse me while I self-destruct/ ‘Cause I don’t give a fuck.”

    Even as the album progresses, UGLY is less about digging himself out of those self-destructive tendencies than learning to face up to and embrace different facets of his personality. The catharsis Frampton didn’t get out of therapy he found by returning to his roots, which may sound surprising to some: he grew up wanting to be in rock bands but turned to rap because none of his peers would give him a serious shot. Now, having already teamed up with acts like Slaves (now known as Soft Play) and IDLES, he has the tools and connections to make the album he always wanted and that every rapper-turned-rockstar wishes they could. More drawn to post- than pop-punk, slowthai scrubs off the “ish” out of the “punkish” energy of his debut, going as far as to enter the extended “produced by Dan Carey” universe and enlisting Fontaines D.C. alongside a crew of contributors that include Shygirl, Kwes Darko, and Jockstrap’s Taylor Skye. The results have all the authenticity and raw grit you’d want from such a transition, even if beneath the convincing surface the songwriting isn’t always up to par.

    slowthai generally sounds invigorated by Carey’s dynamic production, which is able to match the rapper’s dizzying and often conflicting train of thought. ‘Yum’ and early single ‘Selfish’ are among the album’s most thrilling cuts, with the dark, propulsive swagger of the latter allowing slowthai to tap into one of his most vibrant performances. But the record quickly starts to lose momentum, competently switching between styles but slowly losing its sense of identity. slowthai has no issue commanding whatever instrumental he and his collaborators whip up, revealing the mangled irony behind ostensibly carefree songs like ‘Feel Good’ and ‘Wotz Funny’. But on songs like ‘Sooner’, he seems to just be hanging along for the ride. The pair of ‘HAPPY’ and ‘UGLY’ is particularly puzzling: spelling out the title of a song is rarely a good idea, but to do it on two tracks in a row? The forced positivity of ‘HAPPY’ is more baffling than biting, while ‘UGLY’ sounds like a Pablo Honey-era Radiohead cut with a wearying chorus. When slowthai struggles to find the right balance between singing and rapping, it sometimes undercuts the emotion of his words.

    Amidst the noise and confusion, there are flashes of brilliance. UGLY‘s best song might be ‘Fuck It Puppet’ – the name his therapist gave “the self-destructive imp on his shoulder” – which is just seventy-three seconds of pure dramatic intensity. On ‘Never Again’, the live instrumentation beautifully accentuates his rich, contemplative lyricism. slowthai’s endearing sense of humour still shines through when you least expect it, like when he ends the final verse on ‘Feel Good’ with a reminder that “Everything ain’t nice like cherry pie,” giggling at his own joke. For a therapy album about how therapy doesn’t always work but the transformative power of music might be more than a cliché, UGLY has some genuinely potent moments, like when it evokes the abyss of depression on the Pixies-indebted (maybe too indebted) ‘Falling’. But the biggest piece of evidence for UGLY‘s thesis lies in ‘Tourniquet’, which unravels purposefully before reaching its conclusion: “I give you everything I’ve got/ Until the last fucking bone I have,” he sings with selfless desperation, dispelling every shred of doubt thrown his way. There’s no impish persona, no devil on his shoulder, no obsessions to toy with, just unvarnished desire to get to the core of this – by, if not entirely for, himself.

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    No one has flaunted his introspective streak quite like slowthai. While he rose to fame thanks to the incisive political commentary of 2019's Nothing Great About Britain, his status as a celebrated rapper in today's culture – especially one whose career has been shrouded...Album Review: slowthai, 'UGLY'