After his last release, Konnichiwa, won the Mercury Prize, Skepta has a lot of expectations to live up to. He won a new level of respect for grime as a genre, and the question of the follow-up plagues him as much as it did The Stone Roses or Primal Scream. And just like those bands, Skepta has delivered an album not bad by any measure, but underwhelming.
The album begins in glorious clarity, the first song ‘Bullet from a Gun’ shows a new perspective from a man who has become a father recently, and he weighs his family history and the impact his dad had on his life. His flow is seamless too; reminiscent of earlier days when he was freestyling in the street for Risky Roadz. Some of the lyrics are direct echoes – ‘I went silver, I went Gold/Then I went platinum so what’s next’ and that last line added on shows he is aware of the progress he’s made and the distance he’s come, from flogging Boy Better Know tees to posing with Naomi Campbell for the front of GQ. If that clarity hung around for the whole album we would be looking at Konnichiwa’s equal, unfortunately it has got lost by the second song ‘Greaze Mode’. Here he dips his toe into the murky waters of trap, and things become pretty generic; women, weed and wishing the song would end. On top, there is an awful showing from Nafe Smallz – ‘On her knees/She see the D/She see the freeze/Rolling trees/From overseas/Smoke for free/N**** please’ and you find yourself longing for the days when it was a challenge to keep up with the flow because Skepta was going so fast. Hazy is not his strong suit.
the lyrical swiftness and sharp production that makes Skepta stand head, shoulders and cap above other grime MC’s
Thankfully his skills resurface later. ‘Same Old Story’ and ‘Going Through It’ bear the lyrical swiftness and sharp production that makes Skepta stand head, shoulders and cap above other grime MC’s. ‘Love Me Not’ and ‘You Wish’ sound fresh and classic at once, and there is a ruthlessly political track ‘Glow In The Dark’ that tackles identity politics and political hypocrisy with some deft images – ‘Politicians trying to get tickets to come to the shows/I shake hands with a long arm never get close’. At the same time, you can’t escape the shots that Skepta painfully misses. The production on some tracks is very dodgy – ‘No Sleep’ in particular is like being beaten over the head with a set of cowbells. While he makes some fair complaints about identity politics and the way political correctness stifle good music, lyrics like the weak domestic violence similes on ‘Redrum’ come across short sighted at best – ‘Slap it like who/Slap it like what/Slap it like Ike Turner’.
Most of all, the message of the album that Skepta is growing up or evolving doesn’t fit with the feel of the lyrics. He is 36 years old now and has a baby girl, so the braggadocio might ease off a bit, you would think. However, he is just as cocky as ever it seems, the mellowing and maturing isn’t happening even though he says it is. Young rappers yet to make it big have to be boasty, have to fight for their place. With Skepta though, it always had a sense of irony – this being the man who named his first album Greatest Hits. But now he is fully grown and has reached higher than any other MC, it comes off as arrogant, immature. Ignorance Is Bliss tries to straddle the gap between the roots and the new growth, where he came from and where he’s going. What it delivers is a strange mix of nostalgia and innovation that suggest Skepta hasn’t quite found the balance yet.