Even the biggest artists in the world have songs you haven’t heard. In our series Z-Sides , we shine light on those rare tracks and deep cuts that only hardcores know word for word.
I was walking home in the rain the other night – headphones on, hood comfortably up – when I decided to listen to “High Street”, a song from Blood Orange’s 2013 album Cupid Deluxe, featuring Skepta. Since Dev Hynes has a knack for evocative songwriting, this particular track has always made me feel a certain way. It’s about the feeling of navigating the city at night, of the damp pavement soaking into your trainers, of the silence that’s only lightly punctuated by a bus slowly pulling into its stop. Like Burial, Hynes creates a sense of being alone yet also surrounded.
Even though four years have passed since “High Street” was released, the track remains as subtle yet immortal as ever. That’s one reason I think about it on evenings when I’m walking home on my own. The other is because “High Street” one of Skepta’s best (if not most criminally underrated) verses and – in one way or another – an integral part of his reinvention.
In a weird moment of serendipity, the hook of the track – “You seem to think that you're all alone / And nothing ever could change it all” – seemed to apply to Skepta more than it ever had past or present. So, since the entire song may be forgotten – unknown, even – to those who jumped on the bandwagon in the past few years, here’s a couple reasons why “High Street” is a prime rap cut and a key track in Skepta’s career.
It is on a Blood Orange album. Blood Orange!
Do I need to say more? Like grindie – a harrowing musical genre of the early aughts where grime MCs collaborated with indie bands (see: Lethal Bizzle and Babyshambles) – this should’ve been a trainwreck. The fact it isn’t is either an act of God, a beautiful glitch in the matrix, or… idk, talent?
The song precluded “That’s Not Me”
Whenever I think about the grime resurgence in particular reference to Skepta, “High Street” is the track that precludes everything. Coming in the interim period after Blacklisted and before "That's Not Me", there's a sense of the realist, almost egoless atmosphere of Skepta’s breakthrough year on “High Street”. To give a sense of where he was at critically during this era (inside, but more crucially outside of the grime scene), when I saw Blood Orange perform the track at London’s 100 Club Skepta walked into the venue on his own, backpack on, moved through the crowd, performed his verse then walked off the side of the stage and came back through the crowd and left – unbothered by anyone.
The verses act as chapters of Skepta’s life. No.1: living and breathing.
The song’s first line, “Silence on my estate”, is a masterclass in painting a scene with as little words as possible. Immediately you’re there: among the rain, the damp pavements and dull streetlights. Skepta moves on to speak about his early years, having blisters from playing too much Sega Megadrive, watching Michael Jackson on the TV. His mum’s upset because he isn’t bringing in any money but somehow has enough to score an eighth of weed. Simple, relatable scenes.
No.2: starting to make movements into music
“I was on the 279 / trying to show my songs to the world / inspired by the streets, fell in love with the beats / I never had time for a girl", Skepta raps, referencing the bus route running through his Tottenham hometown and that initial passion and drive that continues to permeate through his music. He speaks about the first time he went on the radio and not being able to believe it.
All of this is sincere to write about, because it’s spoken so sincerely on record by Skepta. And there’s nothing wrong with sincerity, really, except the idea that it’s not cool to act in that way – especially in rap – which is precisely the reason why “High Street” is a stand-out in Skepta’s career.
The unity of London postcodes
Time ago London was a place where, realistically, there were areas certain people wouldn’t go or interact with. Say you’re from Hackney (in east London), you may not want to go Brixton (in south London). To older readers and London residents that may be obvious but to the young ones out there, the new cross-country children of grime, I guess it’s worth stating that throughout the song Skepta continually shouts out each area, unifying them all in one song with the repeated line “This one’s for my Gs in the [North/South/East/West] side”.
When Blood Orange eventually played the song at Field Day festival sometime around 2014, he brought Skepta on stage to perform it again. Hearing those words echo around Victoria Park, seeing Skepta standing on the main stage – I think he may have been wearing an England football shirt, although there’s no footage available online – was one of those unforgettable moments. Somewhere toward iconic, there was something in the air. Today, I look back on it as the start of the beginning – of the new road that took Skepta to winning that Mercury Award, headlining The O2 Arena, and generally, as he says on that song, doing it for his mum and dad.
You can find Ryan on Twitter.