clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Skepta’s ‘Ignorance Is Bliss’ Is a Thrilling Crash Course in Grime

The veteran U.K. rapper’s latest album is sonically loose, free, and fun, while also representing a shift in focus—urgent but unrushed

The rise of grime from pirate radio broadcasts to the lush carpets of Buckingham Palace and Mercury Prize recognition began in part as a reaction to the glossy symmetry of dance music in the late ’90s and early aughts. Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s 2001 smash hit “Murder on the Dancefloor” for instance, sounds sort of plush and promotional for a song with the word “murder” in its title—even when she sings “DJ gonna burn this goddamn house right down,” you can picture yourself plunking down on a couch outside a fitting room. It’s Ellis-Bextor’s voice chopped and looped over and over again that gives “Love Me Not,” from Skepta’s new album Ignorance Is Bliss, its texture; its backbone is calamitous bass. “Love Me Not,” basically, is a song more worthy of the word “murder.” Ellis-Bextor would like to perform it live with Skepta sometime. What a sight that would be.

Ignorance Is Bliss represents a shift in perspective for the North London rapper. At the end of the video for the dead-sober track “Bullet From a Gun,” the 36-year-old slings a changing bag over his shoulder and pushes a stroller off-screen. He’s been busy since 2016’s award-winning, America-cracking Konnichiwa—he designed a number of Nike trainers, started an elevated streetwear label, released an EP, did acid with A$AP Rocky, and soon after fucking things up with fashion icon Naomi Campbell, welcomed a daughter into the world. (The breakup and the baby may not be totally unrelated.) Fatherhood has helped him strike a new tone—urgent but unrushed, both self-possessed and aggressive. In interviews, he’s described a new clarity of focus, understanding himself as a signal through all the noise.

His voice, meanwhile, is as singular as it ever was. It’s best described in adjectives otherwise used for steel like “cold,” or “serrated,” or “remorseless.” Skepta’s career was born in battle rap; clashes with rival MCs in East London were the whetstone. His words can cut and slice, and it’s never more evident than on songs like the excitingly bitter “Going Through It.” The production is a hazy mess that sounds like a hitching part on an Autobot halting its full transformation; couplets like “Said I’d be here by 7’o’clock, well now it’s 8 somethin’ / Gotta get more organized, ‘cause fam I hate rushin’” come through clear as day. Skepta’s diction is so precise that it can raise the floor of a warmed-over idea. He’s so cool that it’s fine if “Man I been goin’ through it, I don’t wanna talk about it, I don’t wanna get into it” is as personal as he can manage to get.

Skepta, for the uninitiated, is a mainstay in grime, and has been since at least his 2007 debut album, tauntingly titled Greatest Hits. In a genre characterized by its fraught and combative nature, a decade-plus at the top is no mean feat. Like Dizzee Rascal and Wiley—both of whom he’s on uneasy terms with at the moment—Skepta is one of a precious few from the U.K. rap scene that have transcended the region and advanced on North America with any success. If none of that matters to you, you’ll remember that he beat out a posthumous David Bowie album for the Mercury Prize, and for a solid year, Skepta had Drake speaking almost exclusively in roadman slang.

You can’t blame people for making the same jokes about the overperfect pronunciation and prim, occasionally silly sensibilities of British rap as opposed to American hip-hop, even if it is a little rote at this point. Unfortunately, there’s nothing that’s not hilarious about this line: “Man, I got milfs in love with the words I rhyme, even though I swear and I curse all the time.” That stinker comes from “No Sleep,” an appropriately restless track with gargling bass and vaguely East Asian–sounding synths, one of early grime’s many, strange sonic identifiers.

Ignorance was produced by Skepta himself in its near-entirety and samples a 15-year career spanning multiple eras of black U.K. music, yet it never lapses into compilation album territory. To put it simply: There’s something here for you whether you wear your track pants and nylon watch cap year-round, or solely to listen to the latest Skepta release. There’s “Gangsta,” the requisite Boy Better Know posse cut; the pleasingly confrontational “You Wish” follows the cadence of his breakout hit “That’s Not Me”; “Greaze Mode” makes those dirty Triple-6 drums Skepta loves so much even trappier and deploys a danceable Auto-Tuned hook; “Red Rum” carries on grime’s tradition of sounding as if it were expressly made for a rave coinciding with the apocalypse. No one really needed Key! tacked on to the end of it. “What Do You Mean” on the whole is kind of a head-scratcher. But I can’t say Skepta hasn’t earned the right to explore his own catchphrase over a lukewarm, paint-by-numbers, Scott Storch–ass beat.

By and large, though, Ignorance works—where Konnichiwa was a victory lap for grime’s commercial revival, Skepta’s fourth studio album opts for reservedness and reflection, even if it is largely shallow. It never coheres into a consistent narrative, but rather feels like a centered collection of ideas all tinged the same color; sonically loose, free, and fun while of course being, thematically, guarded and suspicious. On “You Wish,” Skepta pauses to take stock of all that he’s built—or wrought?—in the form of a rhetorical question: “So yeah, at this age, how is it me still murkin’?” He seems to perish the thought of stopping before it even has a chance to fully form, and then moves on to his girl, who’s got the body like “wow.” It’s the kind of lazy boast that’s rendered unassailable only by the kind of success Skepta has enjoyed. Ignorance, by that token, is the kind of album only someone who’s been as prolific for as long as Skepta has could make.