Americans, especially American rap fans, are a myopic people. As a rule, we are unable to see past our own Twitter timelines, limiting our understanding of hip-hop to that which we have grown up with and can see in front of our eyes. We like our hip-hop how we like our foreign policy—violent, aggressive, almost comically capitalistic, and proudly American as all motherfuck. This is one of the reasons that British hip-hop has never quite caught on here. The beats sound like rap, the raps sound like rap, but there’s something… off. Maybe it’s the accent which keeps us shut off, or maybe it’s the slang, dense and tied to the streets of London. Maybe it’s that to many, hip-hop, just like jazz and pro wrestling, is an innately American art form. We invented the stuff, we know how we like it, and when we listen to another country’s version of it, it can have the effect of looking into a funhouse mirror and being puzzled by your own reflection.
I say that to say this: When Americans think of British rap, we tend to only think of The Streets aka Mike Skinner, and Dizzee Rascal. Because we can only think of Non-American things in terms of American analogs, the pair tend to get labeled the Eminem and Jay Z of British hip-hop. Dizzee is Jay because he is a global pop star who occasionally returns to music that sounds like his old stuff as a genre exercise, while Skinner gets labeled as the British Eminem almost completely because he is white. At the risk of extending this hyperbolically clumsy metaphor, allow me to position Wiley as Nas: an eccentric genius who seems haunted by his inability to cross over, too tied to the streets that made him to fully let go of his roots, trying to understand why his less-talented rival could blow while he didn’t, and to a select few, the greatest to ever do it.
Wiley and Dizzee in happier times.
If you want a peek into Wiley’s brain, take a trip on over to his Twitter feed. Recently, he’s tweeted out links to “Freedom” by Nicki Minaj, Lil Reese and Cheef Keef’s “Traffic,” Ty Dolla $ign’s “Lies,” the music video for his 2012 hit “Heatwave,” and Eminem’s “Detroit Vs. Everybody.” He's shouted out Soulja Boy, and posted an Instagram of a loaf of bread with the caption, “Jesus told me to share this…” Oddly enough, this is a pretty representative sample of Wiley’s aesthetic. He’s random, prolific, possesses an incredible sense for production, and topped off with a sublime flow. He’s drawn to hip-hop’s leftfield and sees himself in the same lane as other idiosyncratic artists with a distinct sound. Like Ty and Soulja, Wiley is an auteurist force, equally skilled at production as he is rhyming. Like Reese and Keef, he is the global face of a local scene—Keef and Reese are the spokesmen for Chicago drill, while Wiley reps the true school of London grime. Like Nicki, Wiley’s decisions to go pop—“Wearin’ My Rolex,” or even “Heatwave”—expanded his audience and increased his popularity, at the cost of undermining his credibility with die-hard grime fans. But unlike Minaj, who has successfully retained one foot in the street-rap scene and one foot on the pop charts, Wiley’s never quite been able to maintain a balance. Between pop and grime, between what he thinks is right and what is expected of him, between speaking his mind and knowing when to hold back. It’s what makes him so great, and it’s also what makes him his own worst enemy.
Unlike many rappers entering their thirties, Wiley hasn’t fallen off—he’s only gotten better. His tenth (and possibly final) studio album, Snakes & Ladders, finds the 35-year-old Londoner more limber on the mic than he’s ever been. As a younger man, Wiley approached rapping from the mentality of an MC at a rave, using his voice as a tool to keep the crowd going, keep the energy up, and launch idle lyrical pot-shots no one in particular. As the years have progressed, so has Wiley’s ability to write songs about things rather than just rap to fill space in a song. Sometimes that might mean rapping about flashing your watch at a girl in the club, sometimes that might mean admitting you should have been a better father to your daughters (“Shoulda Been Smarter”), sometimes that might mean constructing the perfect pop-rap tune. Snakes & Ladders might not be a perfect Wiley album, but it perfectly encapsulates what he does best—there is vintage grime in “On a Level,” self-reflection on “What’s On Ya Mind?,” tracks that wouldn’t sound out of place on an album by a forward thinking rapper such as Danny Brown (“Badman”), and “Lonely,” a posse cut featuring Cam’ron, Problem, J.R. Writer and Gudda Gudda, which apes the hyphy-influenced sound of Los Angeles party rap, and might be Wiley’s finest shot at having a crossover hit in America.
Wiley’s productions, angular and intentionally cold to the point where he originally referred to them as “Eski” (as in “Eskimo”) helped define the sound of grime, and had an indelible impact on the UK’s electronic scene in the 2000s and even now. As grime-fluent producers and rappers such as Hudson Mohawke, RatKing, and Danny Brown find footing in American hip-hop's mainstream, Wiley is finally seeing his influence manifested in America, albeit second-hand. Meanwhile, the stories about Wiley as a person make him something of a legend. A colleague of mine was once interviewing him at a house in Marbella, when Wiley suddenly excused himself, never to return. Three hours later, he was tweeting from Scotland. There is the time he livetweeted himself drinking 33 jaegerbombs in a night, shrugging it off to Fact Magazine by saying, “It got silly for a minute…I didn’t vomit though.” He’s prolific—this is a guy who, in 2010, casually dropped eleven zip files of unreleased material from his Twitter account. He’ll rap about anything and everything, whether it’s arguing with a clerk at a restaurant, flossing in the club, or pining after a girl who doesn’t want anything to do with him. His directness, combined with the sheer volume of his idiosyncratic output, rivals that of Lil B or mixtape-era Lil Wayne.
Simply put, the great irony of Wiley is that he should be much more popular than he actually is, both Stateside and in his home country, and he knows it. After steadily building his profile through three albums, mixtapes, and classic pirate radio sets, Wiley had a bona fide hit in 2008’s “Wearing My Rolex”, which flipped DSK’s 1991 House classic “What Would We Do?” into a dancefloor anthem. However, he failed to capitalise on its success—See Clear Now, the album attached to “Rolex”, was by all accounts a disaster. In an interview with the Guardian, Wiley would protest his lack of creative control over the record, saying, “I was just told to vocal this beat, vocal that beat. I never really had much musical input in it, which burnt me inside.”
Part of what makes grime so special is it is an inherently odd form of music. It’s like an island that imports all of its goods but exports next to nothing. It’s hip-hop, sure, but it draws from dancehall, garage and 2-step, informed by a pirate radio sensibility and a sublime sense of the absurd. Much like hip-hop from the Bay Area or Houston, grime is hyper-regional. Its artists use dense local slang and articulate stories that are true to where they come from. This can generate massive local followings, and occasional crossovers into the mainstream. But for every “Tell Me When to Go,” which had national appeal while retaining a strong local sensibility, there are ten records like “Summertime,” Wiley’s flat-footed, Daft Punk-sampling follow-up to “Rolex” that abandoned grime altogether while failing to make any meaningful impact on the charts.
In interviews, he can come across as bitter, and with good reason. He’s watched his one-time friend Dizzee Rascal abandon grime for songs with Robbie Williams and will.i.am, Tinie Tempah flatten his British accent out for American success, and his fellow grime MC Kano take up an acting career. Meanwhile, Wiley had his shot, blew it, and proceeded to monkishly return to grime, where he knows he has a home. But this too can be frustrating, because by retreating to the base, Wiley sacrifices the opportunity to be the biggest artist in the world. In a 2012 interview with Fact, Wiley expressed relief with Big Dada’s lack of expectations for him, only to contradict himself in his very next answer, saying “Everyone asks me these questions, every day, and I answer them, but in my head I know that I’m gonna get off this phone, and go find a million ways to rise above what I just said. Because obviously that’s bullshit, I wanna rise up, I wanna be massive.” Ambition crossed with self-awareness can be a motherfucker.
And so, Wiley soldiers on, fighting the good fight, holding on to the hope that he may one day indeed be the biggest artist in the universe. Stranger things have happened. If you’d told me in 2007 that two of the biggest artists in hip-hop would be Drake, aka Wheelchair Jimmy from DeGrassi, and 2 Chainz, aka one of the dudes on “Duffle Bag Boy”, I’d have told you to fuck off. When you think about it, that's not much crazier than Wiley, a 34-year-old British legend finally crossing over into America with a Gudda Gudda/Cam’ron collaboration. It’s improbable, but Wiley’s just preposterous enough to pull it off.
Follow Drew on Twitter.