To celebrate the creation of his third album, UGLY, slowthai got its title prominently tattooed beneath his left eye. If that alone somehow doesn’t convince you of the Northampton rapper’s commitment to his new music, simply listen to album opener “Yum” – perhaps the boldest and most bizarre track the 28 year old has released thus far. Beginning with repetitions of “You are good / You are great / You’re king / You’re queen / You’re a genius”, it evolves into something visceral, carnivorous even, and abrasive. Percussive synths and disconcerting electronics continually swell and Tyron Frampton’s voice descends into a growl at multiple points as he details reckless, hedonistic attempts to find joy; “More coke / More weed / More E’s / More trips”. No one else could make the experience of “smoking weed, singing Lauryn Hill” sound so downright terrifying.
Over the course of two previous albums and three EPs, slowthai has gained a reputation for deconstructing both the personal and political with striking authenticity and precision. But UGLY is surely his most intense, unvarnished, unrelenting personal excavation – an embattled cry from an artist who, despite enjoying an ever-growing platform, seemingly feels perpetually misunderstood. On “Fuck It Puppet”, he battles with inner demons telling him to commit suicide, while on “Selfish” he finds himself succumbing to self-destructive behaviours even as material successes rack up around him. The peppy pre-release single “Feel Good” felt breezy and optimistic upon initial release, but in the context of the album, a darker subtext emerges – the countless repetitions of “I feel so good” now reading as a desperate attempt from our narrator to convince themselves they’re happy.
On the show-stopping “Never Again”, slowthai recalls running into both his ex and his ex’s parents separately; using conversations with them in aid of an evocative showreel of memories. At the end of the second verse, his ex leaves him with the affirmation “you make me beam up / And I hope you get everything you ever dreamed of” before the third verse reveals she’s been murdered by her violent boyfriend. It’s the sort of staggeringly powerful moment that reminds you why slowthai is rightly considered by so many to exist in a league entirely of his own.
For most of UGLY, slowthai takes inspiration from the sounds of post-punk – a surprisingly brittle sonic palette for such a maximalist-inclined musician. Any incongruities between this style and slowthai’s imposing vocal delivery is mostly rendered secondary by expert songwriting, be that the aforementioned, staggering vulnerability of “Never Again” or the affecting character study of “Wotz Funny”, which details a mother forced into sex work to pay for her child’s medication. But when lyrical quality begins to dip, the sound’s limitations begin to come into sharper focus – most notably on “Happy”, whose chorus devolves into self-helpy repetitions of “Okay to cry, Okay to cry / H-A-P-P-Y, H-A-P-P-Y”. Alternately, on song’s like “Fuck It Puppet”, the brittle sounds of post-punk fail to provide the naked confessionals with their due gutpunch.
But slowthai need not fall back on the sounds of old to once again find a fitting backdrop to his bars. The two most impressive moments on his third LP are both completely left field. The first, “UGLY”, takes surprise inspiration from the sounds of shoegaze – with fuzzy guitars and vocals buried deep into the mix – as slowthai lists off the various sins of the 21st century (unrealistic body standards, hyper-capitalist bosses and landlords, propaganda). The first half of the song is woozy and intoxicating; it sounds almost as if it’s being played in slow-motion and the cumulative effect of listening to it is akin to one of those dreams where despite your best efforts to run, you find yourself barely able to move at all. But if time collapses in on itself in the song’s first leg, it gains a rapid sense of urgency in its middle, as slowthai delivers the album’s most fiery, impassioned rap delivery. Then the shoegaze inspiration takes center stage once again in the song’s final third, with an intoxicating bazz-riff and heavily distorted guitars that recall My Bloody Valentine.
The second showstopper arrives in the form of “Tourniquet” – the album’s most slowly unfolding song. It’s striking how little there is going on instrumentally for most of the song beyond a few tastefully placed, glistening synths and a lilting piano line that emerges and quickly recedes at various moments. For most of the song, we are left staggeringly alone with Tyron’s voice as he once finds himself isolated and self-destructing. Some of the best slowthai songs are unadulterated assaults on the ears, so it’s surprising how captivating it is to hear him spitting over barely-there arrangements. In the final moments of the should-be-closer, the song builds via repeated drum hits and the looping sound of a siren. “I give you everything I’ve got / Until the last fucking bone I have”, slowthai declares, the word ‘have’ descending into a distressed, feral cry – a testament to the unparalleled catharsis that runs through UGLY, and that makes such a challenging LP ultimately worthwhile.