Jesse James Solomon is a story-teller. Or as he puts it at one point on his latest EP Strata, he spits “the inner-city version of deep country blues”. Where other MCs exist solely for the turn-up, pumping out party tune after party tune and shouting out taxi companies, Solomon brings the listener along for the ride – into the depths of his environment, the crevices of his mind.
In 2014, when he released his debut EP Jesse From SE, we said the south London rapper would rob your stereotypical views of UK hip-hop. Back then the genre seemed like a side-piece to grime or road rap, haunted by the work of damp Bristolians or overwrought bars designed to make the listener think. Coming up at the same time as MCs like Little Simz and Loyle Carner, Solomon pushed the genre forward. Yet, at the same time, he remained in a lane of his own: a lone figure shrouded in darkness, often disappearing off the map, lost in the world, perhaps even at times to himself.
In the three years since that debut release, the name Jesse James Solomon has blinkered on and off. Look close and you might have seen him at a rave, sunglasses on, in the corner. Or maybe, online, you caught the odd release – his collaboration with Skepta, perhaps, or Rejjie Snow, or Wiki. Without speaking to him, it’s not clear if the bars on Strata are self-referential – they allude to living “a fast life”, a “need to grow”; he says “when I was hurt, I didn’t bleed I wrote”. In spite of that knowledge, however, it is undeniable fact that Solomon has evolved in his time away.
Strata – named after the massive London skyscraper in Solomon’s local neighbourhood, and the cover artwork for which Solomon painted – is a vivid, late-night journey through the city. Opening with a plucked guitar riff that falls like drops of early morning rain onto hard concrete, Solomon begins with a tale of reminiscing under moonlight, of seeing "a lost boy so aimless, trying to figure out what the game is”, as he walks past what used to be the Heygate Estate – a housing block in his local area of Elephant and Castle that’s been bulldozed to make way for soulless luxury flats.
The rhythm of south London has changed since Jesse From SE was released, and this state of unknown flux and figuring things out is represented in Solomon himself. On “Under the Sun” – which features Kadiata, a producer and MC who also lives south of the river – Solomon speaks of spilling champagne onto stage floors, of not sleeping and not dreaming, of finding himself in Paris. Next up, on “Don’t Make Me”, Eliza provides a soulful hook – her plea of “don’t make me beg for love” resembling a satellite in the night-sky, the sound, perhaps, of a previous phone call made real.
“Goat Talk” seems to confirm the record is autobiographical, with references to Solomon’s crew of King Krule and Rejjie Snow slotted in among bars about bossmen and five-star Uber trips and lines of coke. But regardless if the stories Solomon is telling are real (and they probably are at least looselyautobiographical; I wouldn’t doubt him to be any less than authentic), Strata excels because of the inimitable way Solomon raps. Lyrics slowly wind themselves together, revealing minutiae that expands into a portrait. He’s poetic (“I exhale, watch the smoke dance in the November breeze”), he’s vulnerable (“Flying down the empty streets, I tend to be higher than I’m meant to be / This is the entity, the things I love will be the end of me”), and he’s juiced up on confidence, embodying the spirit of one of rap’s GOATs (“You’re not on my wave boy, you’re not on my boat, I’m the Elephant and Castle with the moat”).
UK rap in 2018 is as a multi-faceted, colourful and bright entity. There are the collectives, wavey and forward thinking groups like 808INK and House of Pharaohs who are bringing an art school sensibility to the genre. Loyle Carner is still doing his heartfelt thing, and Casisdead is putting drug bars over 80s production. Jesse James Solomon is one other piece of the puzzle, and with Strata he proves he's a singular artist – a storyteller in the vein of an author, emerging once-in-a-while to piece together the great London novel of this generation, each song a chapter in the beating heart of his experience in this city.
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.