London rapper SL, a south London native on the cusp of his 18th birthday, wears a mask. Sometimes it’s a black balaclava but usually it comes in different colours: white, olive drab, cool azure blue, a soft grey. Those muted shades pretty accurately represent his music – a term dubbed ‘tropical drill’, where the stark atmosphere of the genre is coupled with a melodic, colourful – and at times even playful – flow.
Take “Summertime Santa”, an ice cold, fruity loosie released last Christmas day. Its video, shot on location in a steamy Balinese forest, is literally a world away from the estates of Brixton and Tottenham – home to London drill mainstays like 67 and Headie One. The lyrics, though, are pure London, burner phones and ammy weed; SL rapping “Trap-trap-trap / ho-ho-ho / That’s loads of presents, flung out to the local folks,” like he’s returned back to the block gripping a fat load of smell-proof bags. In this one, he wears a particularly striking, deep, royal blue mask.
However, despite it seeming as though SL wants to shield his identity, he's unmasked on the day we meet at his PR company's offices in Brixton, south London. Even casual fans of drill know that several of the genre's MCs tend to shield their faces behind masks or balaclavas; lyrics about trapping and violence, whether based on fact or fiction, obviously make them targets of surveillance. And so keeping your face in the shadows, away from the extended reach of authorities, makes sense. But for SL, the mask isn’t about that; you can find his face if you really want, in videos when he first popped up as a 15-year-old under the name Slimz.
“I think that’s good because I want people to know that I’m not hiding. I want people to know that if they want to know what I look like, it’s not hard, it’s on the internet,” he tells me, kicking back in an armchair, box-fresh Air Maxes on his feet, August sun pouring through the window. He’s a relatively quiet interview subject and I’m not surprised; it’s only the second time he’s done one, the last being in 2018 for The Fader, a good few months before he released Everything Good Is Bad, his debut EP, in April this year.
The six-track EP took fans by surprise, if only because so few singles came between then and his first release as SL, “Gentleman”, in 2017. When you compare that release rate to other MCs, flinging their tracks out every other New Music Friday or teasing numerous freestyles on their Snapchat profiles, it could be considered practically glacial. Look to SL’s YouTube profile and you’ll catch jokes about his work rate being so slow because he’s doing his GCSEs (a genuine fact at the time; he studied business and PE on top of all the usual stuff). Most time, these comments drop within a few minutes of a new video upload – and many of them already beg for more new music. I tell him it doesn't feel fair that his fans weren’t fully satisfied after each release.
He laughs. "It’s good to be kind of exclusive,” he says, casually both assessing and understanding the current musical landscape. “You want people to be happy when they see you. You don’t want them to be like: ‘ah it’s nothing new, there’s gonna be another one next week’." He looks relaxed at this point. We've been talking for 15 minutes or so, and are moving out of that early stage where I guess a young artist can feel they’re being grilled by the interview – or at least thrown into an uncomfortable, alien scenario. "I like the way I’ve done it, to be fair.”
Though his fans might prefer slews of new music, they've lapped up his approach too. His video views clock in at tens of millions: “Gentleman”, 29 mil; “Tropical”, 15 mil; “Nothing To Say”, 4 mil. Like “Summertime Santa”, these releases take on a cinematic approach too, matching his luxurious, melodic flow that tends to stray away from the nihilism of his contemporaries. “Tropical” particularly finds itself away from the grey-scale landscapes of inner London, shot as it is among snow-covered mountains against the backdrop of a blue and pink tinged winter sky.
You see him flip that approach around entire, in the video for new single “Gigantalous”. This time, he's gone back to the place where he grew up. “With this one, I wanted to capture a lot of my original fans – the ‘Gentleman’ fans,” he explains. “So I kinda went, you know, ‘I ain't going nowhere’, kept it natural. Because it’s good going all these places but you wanna seem relatable. You want people to see you and say ‘Yeah, it makes sense, I got that same tracksuit he’s wearing’, ‘I was where he was doing his video the other day,’ you know.”
Despite a good percentage of London's drill scene being barely-out-of-school age, SL stands apart from the pack – not just because he is one of the youngest in a young scene, but because of how calmly he delivers his technical bars. There are boasts, there are sexual conquests, there are nods to drug-dealing but it all feels smooth, at times even peaceful in its delivery. "Said let's read, how about this one? / but all she got is Dickens," on "Nothing To Say", is a personal stand-out: a track that nods to early UK grime and garage with its production and hints of polyphonic ringtone-era R&B. It's small quirks like these that've allowed SL to take time with each release. He's calm in person too, if a little shy, carefully choosing each word.
In the "Gigantalous" video he’s also wearing the same balaclava as on the Everything Good Is Bad EP cover. It features a weed leaf, the lipstick markings of a kiss, and some £10 notes – a clean visualisation of three of his favourite things: smoking, girls and making money. Those three themes dominate the EP, too. As SL tells it to me, though, this is only the start of his journey, now that he's starting to open himself up to the world. “I just want to keep doing what I’m doing,” he says, as he gets up to leave, heading out to a studio session. “Working and making bangers.”