Thinkpieces And Shit

It's No Cheesy Urban-lite Anthem, Stormzy is Smashing the UK Charts with a Grime Freestyle

Hell, it doesn’t even have a chorus.

by Paul Gibbins
17 September 2015, 1:01pm

One of the most significant yet overlooked events in grime history occurred back in 2011. After releasing it on a whim, JME took his 2-and-a-half minute freestyle, “96 Fuckries”, to within a whisker of the Top 40 (10 copies short to be exact). Most impressively of all, he did this with no radio play, no agent, no label, no PR and no campaign. All he had to offer was a retweet in exchange for a screenshot of you buying the track. These were simpler times.

JME´s ability to market his personality as well as his music has always made him one of the most sticky MCs in the scene - once you hear him, you need to hear more. But still, him managing to even trouble the UK top 40 with a grime freestyle was rightly seen as a huge thing at the time.

It’s a sign of just how far the scene has come, that in a few short years grime´s latest star, Stormzy, looks to be finally bridging that gap with his “Wicked Skengman Part 4” freestyle, which has headed straight up the charts, and sits at number 12 in the midweeks, with its fate to be decided by midnight tonight. It’s a poetic coincidence that the beat was produced by none other than JME himself.

“Wicked Skengman Part 4” is part of a 2-track EP which also features "Shut Up", a freestyle filmed in a park which has gone on to be viewed more than 6 million times on YouTube. The widespread response to both tracks has been particularly amazing considering how harsh and uncompromising they are in their approach - this isn’t grime with bells on, or bars wrapped in cotton wool and a cute synth hook. Over the years, we’ve come to expect a shift away from the scene’s culture in terms of content and style, for any artist that seeks some Top 20 love. The obvious examples are Dizzee, Wiley and Skepta’s commercial material, and there have been plenty of misses too, such as DJ Cameo’s Future Grime Music experiment (a failure, perhaps in part, because in music videos and publicity it was mostly refered to by its acronym "FGM") .

But this simply isn’t the case with “Wicked Skengman Part 4”. This isn’t a pop song, this isn’t a cheesy, urban-lite anthem - hell, it doesn’t even have a chorus. Let’s be clear about this: Stormzy is currently smashing the charts with a freestyle. This is King Stormzy at his most regal, riding the riddim with the kind of confidence required to go from Nick Jonas collabs to dropping bars over “Functions on the Low” and expecting the same result.

When this charts, it’s going to be a moment, and we need to cherish it and roll around in it. Stormzy is now introducing elements of grime culture to a broad British audience who may not have been aware of it previously, including classic beats which may not have received the mainstream love they deserved first time round. We’re seeing now that young people outside of London, all over the UK, are now starting to co-opt grime and own it, even if they’re not quite yet sure of the difference between grime and rap right now. A lot of people have taken issue with Rita Ora claiming that grime “gives us that authentic feel to why we’re British” but it’s very likely that she isn’t the only person who feels that way. “Wicked Skengman Part 4” is the first stage in prizing open a gap for more artists to achieve chart success with forward-thinking music that flouts a typical pop formula. Wot do you call it, grime? Wot do you call it, rap? Imagine getting back a UK chart we actually give a toss about?

The success of the EP also suggests that the worry about streaming services affecting grime’s ability to chart may have been premature. After all, had streaming data been included when “That’s Not Me” was released then it’s likely Skepta would have made the top 20, and it’s been shown that streaming being included in the UK charts negatively affects US hip hop. YouTube has always been a springboard for grime and rap, with artists posting freestyles and other content up there all the time, so it makes sense that there is a whole market of fans who may not cop a physical or even a digital release, but will stream music from these artists regularly. We’re starting to see the effects of that dormant support becoming weaponised. Hopefully it’ll lead to a situation where the definition of British pop music is expanded to include grime culture and grime artists charting will no longer be a miracle that I need to write about, it’ll be the norm.

You can follow Paul Gibbins on Twitter.