With the benefit of hindsight, the cover to Slowthai’s debut album, 2019’s excellent Nothing Great About Britain, seems prescient: The U.K. rapper, born Tyron Frampton, stands completely nude, grinning while shackled in wooden stocks and surrounded by Union Jacks, as if he’s waiting for an entire nation to take its shots. Within a few months of its release, he’d give his homeland plenty reason to.
The album—an anarchistic grime-punk affair that simultaneously encouraged mosh pits and class warfare—turned Slowthai into a budding star, complete with a stampeding hit in “Doorman,” a raucous Tonight Show performance, a tour alongside rap heartthrobs Brockhampton, and a centerstage Glastonbury spot where he wore little more than boxer briefs and festival wristbands. Soon, he’d make headlines for waving a replica of Boris Johnson’s severed head at the Mercury Prize ceremony, drawing predictable outrage from the British press and thousands of think-of-the-children types. His most infamous moment, however, came a few months later: At the NME Awards on February 12, 2020, a liquored-up Slowthai lewdly flirted with presenter Katherine Ryan as he collected the show’s Hero of the Year award. (Seriously, can’t make this up.) A flicked cigarette, a thrown microphone, and an altercation with an audience member ensued. Slowthai apologized to Ryan, and the comedian recently defended him, but the ordeal still looks messy 12 months later.
Slowthai wants to assure us that’s not the real him—at least not completely. And on his sophomore LP, released one year to the day after the NME incident, he goes to great lengths to try to prove it, beginning with its cover (this time featuring a clothed Slowthai lying under a hillside tree, with an arrow through his eye) and its title (simply his first name, TYRON, which signals this is going to be a serious work by a serious artist). He also split the record into two distinct discs: an amped-up opening set, and a softer back half where he reckons with more complicated emotions. It’s personal, if not exactly novel—the annals of rock history are littered with similar soul-baring mea culpas. And at times, the redemption narrative can feel a bit forced, particularly as he bulldozes through the album’s first half. But TYRON is often revelatory when its namesake sets his aim on his most elusive target: himself.
“I’m just at a different point in my life where I’m not as angry anymore,” Slowthai told Rolling Stone last month, and that comes across immediately in his new songs, for better or worse. The charm of Nothing Great came in its small slices of proletariat rage: slapping Prince Harry souvenirs on “Doorman,” a frozen Christmas on “Peace of Mind,” calling the Queen Mother the most British of insults on the title track. Taken as a whole, the album painted the picture of a have-not who learned to train his fury on Buckingham Palace and Downing Street—a message that resonated, both at home and across the pond. But even at its surliest, TYRON lacks the fire of its predecessor. The first disc finds Slowthai mostly trying to have fun, bragging about women and partying with his neighborhood friends. (He told RS he quit drinking last year; based on the amount of substances he ingests on the album’s first half, it would appear at least part of TYRON was written before he cleaned up.) Songs like “DEAD” and “45 SMOKE” sound amazing—the booming backdrops are among the best Slowthai has ever worked with—but lack the lyrical urgency of Nothing Great. The rapper comes alive on his response to the NME controversy, “CANCELLED,” but even as he’s addressing his lowest point in the public eye, he leaves guest star Skepta to handle the chorus, which ultimately amounts to a string of boasts: “How you gonna cancel me? / Twenty awards on the mantelpiece / Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury / Girls in the crowd got their hands on me.” Watching the American Psycho homage in the video for the song it’s hard not to wonder whether a younger Slowthai would’ve played off the movie’s themes of materialism and capitalism. Here, it’s blood and guts for the sake of settling scores with, like, a stodgy Sun columnist.
The true draw of TYRON, however, is its second, more introspective side. The dichotomy between the two sets is a little too tidy—the song titles on the first disc are styled in all caps, while the second’s are all lowercase to reinforce that Slowthai is going through it, man—but it makes for a genuinely moving late-album set. Tracks like “nhs” and “focus” are among his most vulnerable works, while closer “adhd” finds him forgoing his trademark vocal affectations as he builds to the shout-rap coda. (“It’s just my conclusion—like at the end of the book, when you get to the bit where everything starts making sense,” he told Apple Music about “adhd.” “I feel like this is the most connected I’ve been to a song.”) Standout “feel away” finds Slowthai teaming up with the endearingly dour crooner James Blake, who sings, “I leave the dent in my car / To remind me what I could have lost,” a couplet that carries the baggage of a thousand heartbreaks. But the most gripping song on the album—and possibly of the rapper’s young career—is “push,” a collaboration with rising L.A. guitarist-singer Deb Never that grapples with religion, addiction, and the loss of his brother, Michael, who was born with muscular dystrophy and died at age 1: “Shit flies with the magpies / He drowned, got baptised, oh well, I guess that’s life.” The Slowthai of TYRON may not be as prescient when looking outward, but when he burrows deep into his psyche, he’s still capable of arresting moments.
While Nothing Great was a cult favorite in the U.S., TYRON lays the blueprint for Slowthai as an international draw. He’s opened up the album’s guest list—the features include not only Skepta, Blake, and Never, but also Denzel Curry, buzzy Florida singer Dominic Fike, and A$AP Rocky (the last of whom released TYRON in the U.S. through his AWGE label). The jagged edges of Slowthai’s first album have also been smoothed out, as the grime and punk influences of Nothing Great have given way to soul samples and trap flourishes. By and large, it works. That’s a credit to longtime collaborators Kwes Darko and SAMO, but Slowthai also enlisted a few heavyweights to help flesh out his sound: namely Mount Kimbie’s Dominic Maker and Kenny Beats. The results are often beautiful—the one-two punch of “PLAY WITH FIRE” and “i tried” is pure ear candy—and sometimes explosive (it’s borderline criminal that the album’s best mosher, “WOT,” clocks in at a measly 48 seconds). The music on TYRON is bigger, brighter, and more accessible than anything on Nothing Great. Just don’t expect any firestarters like “Doorman.”
Class angst has paid off well for Slowthai. At 26, he’s not quite old and bored, but he’s moved on to a different stage of his career. The music may not be as urgent, and it’s certainly not as anarchic—the closer you get to the prime minister’s tax bracket, the more difficult it is to wave his severed head in effigy, one would presume. In the long run, however, blending the chaotic with the contemplative may be a more successful approach for Slowthai. For now, it should at least keep him from being shackled in the stocks any time soon.