Review Summary: Life ain't always empty.
slowthai has always been a difficult artist to love. His shaky, warbly vocal delivery, like a wolf snarling in the second before it bites; the borderline contrarian dedication to shock value and aggressive tonal disparity in his lyrics; the tendency to stick an entire foot in his mouth in almost every public appearance like an Andy Kaufman bit. Maybe it's by design and maybe not - there's something to be said for the fact that, to approach slowthai on his own terms, you need to be on the outside of it all, riding that line of discomfort to a destination on the fringes of society, where the fluorescent lights flicker so they tell tales by a cigarette's light in the freezing cold.
This has never been more true than on UGLY
, the most uncomfortable album from a major hip-hop name since By the Time I Get to Phoenix
. Much like that album, UGLY
externalises a series of truly nasty personal demons using the space where rap and post-punk collide as its staging grounds. slowthai engages the help of Windmill scene luminary Dan Carey to draw this poison out of his wounds, coming into orbit with names like Fontaines D.C., Taylor Skye, and on an absolutely devastating discography highlight, unsung talent Ethan P. Flynn, penning a spiritual sequel to previous classic "feel away" with James Blake.
The listener is not in for an easy ride here, being subjected to malfunctioning electronic whirrs, a rambling therapy recounting and a disturbing re-enactment of a panic attack within the first five minutes of the album. Even when covering familiar ground, such as on the punky "Wotz Funny" and hip-hop throwback "Fuck it Puppet", the rapper's half-mumbled stories feel rawer and more caustic than ever before, miles away from the lopsided sense of humour that peeked its head out on early successes "T N Biscuits" or "Drug Dealer". By album's end slowthai is screaming over a genuinely beautiful backdrop on "Tourniquet", a shattering listen which is nonetheless one of the most incredible songs of the year. This isn't some wanderlust rapper lightly dipping a toe into post-punk to test out a new fanbase. UGLY
is a headlong tumble into deep waters, careening sharply off the edges of decency and screaming out for meaning as it goes, arse over teakettle into the unknown. Follow it down if you want, just untie that rope around your waist before you do: this is the kind of fall you take at terminal velocity or not at all.