When Che Lingo first got serious with the woman he loves, he had to make some changes. Mostly, the London-based rapper suddenly realised he needed to completely rethink the way he approached romantic relationships, and how he treated women in the process. He had to take a long look at how he’d internalised what he’d later pinpoint as low-key manipulative gendered behaviour. Don’t tell your local meninist, I guess.
We’re speaking about it now because he’s about to release his Sensitive EP, a beautiful collection of songs documenting both the flutters of an early love affair and then the emotional growth you undertake to keep that relationship alive. We’re premiering it here, below. From its ‘babe, please consider how I feel too’ vulnerability on earworm-filled, guitar-drenched single “Mad Angle” to the gone-in-less-than-two-minutes rawness of slower jam “Reasons,” the EP plants Che’s feet firmly in innovative, open-hearted and unafraid rap territory. “I feel very strongly about who I’m becoming as a man,” he says, speaking over the phone, “and I feel like when I met my partner who a lot of this EP is inspired by, I knew where I could pull quote-on-quote ‘rank’ with her as the man.”
But instead, he continues, he spotted that his grip on control over their relationship would tighten like a vice around his own throat, rather than keep them together. “This EP is all my thoughts and feelings when I realised I was insecure about ‘being in control’ of a situation where I was dating a woman. At first, I think with a lot of men, you think you want a woman who’s completely free to do whatever and act however. But when you do find that, it’s not that you can’t handle it. It’s that you’re so used to being able to ‘say and have her do,’ based on how into you she is.” That imbalance, where fear or worry becomes the driving force of a relationship, is not only something he felt he needed to overcome but also the germ from which his songwriting grew, straddling both rap and lilting singing.
When I last spoke to Che, he was on the verge of putting out 2018’s Charisma EP, where he dug into everything from feeling balanced and at peace on “Lower Frequencies”, to industry fakes and social climbers on single “Same Energy.” This time around, he’s exploring some of his most personal material to date. Speaking about masculinity isn’t easy. Blending that with reflections on how to communicate clearly in hetero relationships, while keeping a beat and tossing in the odd hook, is even harder. Yet Che – tipped on both NME’s and Complex’s Ones to Watch lists this year already – rides through that process across this EP’s seven songs like it’s no big deal. Speaking at his usual blistering pace, sometimes hardly pausing for breath between sentences, he sets out how he mined his own experiences for inspiration. Almost like you would with a diary, he poured his feelings and thoughts into Sensitive, practically in real time. It was intense.
“It’s… it’s funny, because the concept came with the feelings,” he says, with the hint of a smile in his voice. “It wasn’t like a ‘concept’ I wanted to push out. This project was both a test to push myself musically, and also very much an in-the-moment kind of thing. And it was because I was experiencing those things,” by which he means his awakening in love. “So it is literally my most bare thoughts. It’s things I’ve thought about or had conversations about, and thought, ‘rah, i’m in my feelings about that right now’ – and you write a song.”
That may sound quite simplistic – I’ve thought something! I’m going to write it down! – but to really understand your motivations in love, you have to be willing to uncover parts of yourself that might make you want to turn away. So some young men like Che seem finally ready to work through their understandings of masculinity. They’re limbering up, ready to pick it up and examine its prickly exterior and soft underbelly – they’re bracing themselves to see how fragile it can be, and how many people of all genders can be hurt when a man finds himself superficially threatened. To be clear, I’m not talking about times when a man feels he has to physically defend his life. Instead, both Che and I start to talk about the contours of the insecurities – around what women should and shouldn’t do, around homosexuality, around being ‘too emotional’ – that turn toxic masculinity into the norm.
“Every man I’ve played this EP to, and told the concept to, we’ve always had this conversation after. I’ve said the same thing. I’ve even had to pull up certain men in my life who think they’re the ‘nice guy,’ and don’t realise they’re being manipulative.” Soon his words are tumbling out, propelled by memories that ring clear in his mind. “Being the nice guy isn’t about how that makes you feel, or how much everyone else thinks you’re the nice guy. It’s about how you really treat women,” But he’s also quick to scoff and add: “I’m not some woke dude” – and I can practically hear him shrug. “But it doesn’t have to be this way. Being a man, and realising you’re actually a prick by default cos you were conditioned to be controlling: you know you don’t have to be that way.”
And so Sensitive concerns itself with what it feels like, as a man, to unlearn some of that controlling behaviour. Che firmly says that he’s not setting out some sort of manifesto or implying that he’s learned all he needs to, and is now kicking back. Rather, he uses Sensitive to almost chronologically track how much can change between an initial infatuation and an acceptance of how vulnerable you truly have to be when in love. Sonically, it stakes out the place Che’s been building in UK rap for the past six years or so. “Circles,” which he released last year, bops along with 90s R&B tat-tat snare drums and new jack swing-like cowbell samples. He sings more than he raps throughout the song (though you do get some straight-to-the-chest bars about midway through) lending it an emotive softness. Elsewhere, an avalanche of bars cascade over the hip-swinging “Be Careful.” Undeniably, there are hints of If You’re Reading This-era Drake in how Che flips between melodic rap, his more classic lyric-heavy bars and out-and-out singing.
“The EP itself is a journey,” he says, bookended by the dialogue-like bars on opener “Mad Angle,” and closer “No Sidekicks,” “which is like, ‘there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you’ because of how deeply I love you. In the middle of the EP, with ‘Reasons,’ it’s about ‘what if you're with another guy’ when really she’s probably not doing any of that, bro. But don’t not trust her, and manipulate her so that you know her every movement. That’s psychotic, bruv. Don’t go for the ‘sexiest’ girl who’s working hard, ambitious, and then try to tame her. Don't do that.”
At one point, I mention that he’s likely to get some blowback from speaking this frankly. Is he ready to be mocked and called a ‘white knight’ online, as though his re-assessment of traditional masculinity is some sort of betrayal to his gender? Frankly, yes. “I feel like with the EP, and how it made me examine, it was a test unto myself. A conversation to me, saying ‘you’ve done all these things, so how long is it going to take you to speak about these things in your music? He pauses again. “I refuse to be that guy now. I’m just not making people sad now. It’s not really to do with women, even, I just don’t want to know that I’ve made people sad on purpose to benefit me.”
Sensitive is due out on Friday 18 January. Che tours the UK and Ireland with Easy Life from 20 March 2019 – find out more here.
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.