Is Wiley OK? We Get Psychoanalytical on His Latest Verses
We analyse ten lyrics from Snakes & Ladders that suggest the grime godfather is older, wiser and more focused than ever.
Wiley’s new album Snakes & Ladders came out yesterday with scarcely any build-up, and yet despite being back with the independent label Big Dada, it’s already climbed higher in the charts than his 2013 “crossover” record on Warner Bros: The Ascent. In fact, if things stay this way until Sunday, it’ll be his first top 20 album in a formidable decade-long career.
For a start, it's the straightest grime release he’s put his name to in ages, fleshed out with both his and Zdot’s productions. And the fact it’s connected so well could be down to the current thirst for grime in our Boxed, Keysound and Butterz-dominated underground. That said, the sub-surface reasons for this album’s ultimate success, though, run a little bit deeper in Wiley’s veins. As he says himself on “BMO Field”: “I know myself well like three blind mice.”
The Wiley on Snakes & Ladders feels like a guy who’s come full circle from “Wot Do U Call It?” He’s the same artist, displaying the same self-consciousness and concern for labels as he asks tough questions about his genre and the industry around it. Coming across like a keynote speech for grime’s growing renaissance, with Wiley now an older, wiser MC, sharing the lessons he’s learnt about the boxes people will put you in, and tackling self-definition head-on. As he says: “Talk is cheap like Lidl,” so I’ll shut up and let the lyrics speak for themselves.
“From The Outside”
“I’m torn between catering for me and the fans / I only hear my big hits where people go to get tans”
Comparing Snakes & Ladders and The Ascent is like comparing a gourmet patty to a collapsed Big Mac. On his 2013 record, Wiley scored a number one, but in a quest to please crowds he ended up just widening the chasm between himself and the people buying his music. He - the man, the searing lyricist - was totally lost inside it. It’s not that it wasn’t grime; it’s that it felt like an album Wiley wasn’t even present for. The lyrics flatly sold clubs and girls, but mostly weren’t the focal point, as a blinding laser show of dance-pop beats and a crowded room of guest features left the MC with little room to breathe. He ultimately left Warner after publicly revealing that he was pissed at their release strategy for his singles, which made it pretty clear that Wiley hadn’t had much of a hand in the record since day one.
“On A Level”
“It’s all fun and games ‘til you end up broke / I don’t want my career to end up a joke”
This isn't just a firework show of a comeback tune, it also provides some of the quintessential lyrics of 2014's Wiley. The one above is peak self-reflection, mingling totally meta references to his past discography with bluntly honest sentiments about his legacy. “If you really want my advice then take it,” he spits next, assuming the wised-up Uncle Wiley role that steers this album for the next generation, “Try not to spend until you’ve made it / Just live within your means innit.”
“Snakes And Ladders Part Two”
“If I take shots, no I ain’t gonna miss / So I may as well embrace the fact that I miss”
Wiley is frank about his past making major label crossover records, but he’s also not dismissive of it. He’s always been grateful for all his fans, whether they came to him from Rinse FM or from the sticky dancefloor of their local on a Saturday night. Part of returning to his grime persona on this record is not just pretending that he never took those mainstream risks, but embracing them. They’re part of his story, and no one tells it better than him.
“Every day I go to work, cuz ain’t nobody owe me / People ask me what it’s like, they say could you show me / I tell ‘em at the top it’s lonely”
“Lonely” is one of the bounciest cuts on the new record, and even though Wiley himself is barely on the track - standing shoulder to shoulder with Problem, Gudda Gudda, JR Writer and Cam’ron - his hook is classic, defining the oversharer vibe of the whole track and delivering humour with real simultaneous pangs of sadface. Despite being literally surrounded by his hip-hop pals on the track, he’s really still in the hood, still feeling himself.
“Grew Up In”
“When the rain falls, you can’t be saved by wellies”
“Don’t book me for them, ‘cause I ain’t playing there”
“Some get along, some don’t / Some work together but I guess some won’t / Life’s way too short for the bullshit”
This is an older, calmer Wiley, and one of the things he’s putting firmly in the past is beef. Mistake age or pacifism for being a soft touch at your own risk, though, because Wiley wants you to know he’s still on the pulse. “I ain’t falling behind though,” he warns, “I’m fully aware everywhere that I go.”
“That’s how I like to MC, like Rascal / Having the hooks and the verses / If another MC test him, he have the curses”
“What’s On Ya Mind”
“Hot, cold and minus / Certain music is timeless”
Grime’s godfather gets wistful on the lush, downbeat “What’s On Ya Mind”. Between offering visions of a multicultural, uninhibited creative future for the next generation and passing on nuggests of industry wisdom, he shouts to his icy eskibeat origins, with heartfelt recognition of how vital that early innovation was and how it will long remain his legacy.
“I’m Wiley / Can’t buy me / I’m a weirdo / But label me grimey, please”
We’re sceptical that this is, as initially promised, Wiley’s last ever album. But, if it did turn out to be the last thing he ever released, its combination of reclaiming the eski throne at the same time as claiming rights to the narrative of his own career would make it the perfect place to bow out. Money means nothing any more, because Wiley’s learned that it comes and goes. The opinions of fans are appreciated, but widespread adulation is no longer the aim. On Snakes & Ladders we get what’s left after all the champagne runs dry and the applause fades... it's just a man named Wiley and a sound that was born in the cold.
Follow Aimee Cliff on Twitter: @aimeecliff