Here’s a controversial opinion: Skepta’s album Konnichiwa should not have won the Mercury Prize. In fact, despite all the hype, Konnichiwa isn’t actually that great. Yes, it has the anthem of all 2015-era school leavers’ parties – That’s Not Me – and the similarly massive Shutdown. And yes, it has features from king-of-the-hill Drake, and Pharrell (the lyrical genius who came up with, “Your first name is free/Your last name is dom” in the song Freedom).
But Konnichiwa suffers from a sense of repetitiveness. Between the standouts there’s a collection of songs like Lyrics, Corn on the Curb, and Detox which are relatively identikit, by the numbers pieces of work. Part of the problem may be that the songs run at grime’s famed 140 beats per minute, but even so, an album which runs at a relatively lean 43 minutes feels considerably overlong.
One might be tempted to say that this is an inherent problem with grime music, which is why the genre will struggle to ever make a commercial breakthrough in its true form. Indeed, the last period in which UK rappers gained considerable success was at the turn of the decade, when Dizzee Rascal led the way with a series of, essentially, pop songs. True, this brought us the undeniable Dance Wiv Me, but this was not a spell of success which was true to grime’s 2-step, garage-inspired beats, the same sort of beats which propelled Dizzee to fame in the first place (with the seminal Boy in Da Corner).
Indeed, the “success” of UK rappers from 2009-2012 was propelled by grime artists abandoning their classic sound in exchange for pop beats. Skepta himself released two singles which moved far away from his usual sound – that Make Peace Not War contains Skepta rapping over a sample of C+C Music Factory’s Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now) says it all, really.
The “success” of UK rappers from 2009-2012 was propelled by grime artists abandoning their classic sound in exchange for pop beats
Clearly the forces of production were not ready for the grime revolution, which soon fizzled out. But, as all good Mensheviks know, society will, in time, be ripe: and it seems the hour might finally be near.
Indeed, the best grime rapper in the game is not Skepta, despite his presence as the ringleader of the operation. It’s Kano. And it’s Kano who should have won the Mercury.
If you’ve never listened to grime music, you’re most likely to have come across Kano on the Gorillaz song White Flag. He is quite simply a stalwart of the genre, who consistently put out excellent work during the Noughties, and, this year, released Made in the Manor, his first album in six years. It’s a powerful collection of songs, and justice will be served if 3 Wheel-ups or This is England gain the fame they deserve.
Most importantly, Kano’s work, unlike Skepta’s, is a testament to the versatility of grime as a genre, while still remaining true to its unique and powerful roots. It’s an album which genuinely sounds like it has been made in “the Manor” (69 Manor Road specifically) – especially found in the pulsating thud of New Banger and opener Hail. The lyrics similarly shimmer as Kano demonstrates his ability to not just turn a phrase about British society (“I buy the same Mr Whippy 99/ But now I’ve got just as much problems and a flake ain’t one” deserves a prize of its own), but also draw the listener into a story like Kanye and Kendrick at their best. Made in the Manor is proof that grime music can use its own rules to create an amazing sound without having to make a compromise.
“I buy the same Mr Whippy 99/ But now I’ve got just as much problems and a flake ain’t one”
So it’s Kano, not Skepta, who deserves the Mercury prize. True, by giving it to Skepta, the award has been given to all the other grime artists for the times that the music industry has made it difficult for them to release or promote music – artists like Wiley, Giggs and Jme. But if Skepta’s going to be music’s next big thing, then a chance has been missed to honour a veteran of the genre who’s never had the recognition he deserved. Kano, here’s to you.