The Cipher of Wiley

On the complicated artistry of the UK's greatest rapper.

Aug 14 2013, 3:20pm

Picture the shot in nearly every rap video where the rapper, wearing shades, bobs his head complacently, looking nowhere in particular, probably, because you can't get past the plastic glint of the frames. Wiley's career is this moment slowed by 800 percent. It's impossible to place Richard Kylea Cowie, a sage who cultivates the infantile, whose defining musical breakthrough was to temper grime's runaway machismo with toybox fragility in 2002. What sense would that have made to anybody? But Wiley's remoteness is important, at a time when the music industry has people like his former protégé Dizzee Rascal growing from teenager into music executive overnight, so much easier to grasp and ignore.

That would have been an easy story—without Wiley. In the early '00s grime is assembled from the postindustrial wreckage of jungle and garage, giving newfound voice to London youths living on council estates. To outsiders the music is incomprehensible because the beats have strange shapes and everybody raps too fast, and in a very English way. But soon Dizzee crosses over with his first album, wins a big music industry prize, eventually performs at the 2012 London Olympics, and becomes the most celebrated rapper in Britain. Maybe this is because Dizzee is a genius who willfully transcended grime so he could do songs with Robbie Williams. Except Wiley's also a genius—who's overseen the scene from day one, shaping it like a surgeon—and he can't let it go. He can't get over Dizzee's explosion into the mainstream while his own major-label album, Treddin' on Thin Ice, flops in comparison. He pines after his one-time brother in song after song. But for all Wiley keeps trying to go pop, he can't let go of grime either.

Unlike the usual crossover artist, Wiley maintains his paternalistic, maybe possessive, eye on the local scene. If Dizzee's long abandoned his home, Wiley is perpetually abandoned, and working in abandon. Who and what is he still looking after?

It seems simple to celebrate the moments when this “godfather of grime” returns to grime, approximately once every nine months. Yeah, Wiley’s new single “Flying” on Big Dada is grime—it's got the right tempo (about 140 bpm), the right cadence (rhymes coiled tight like zip ties around the beat), and the right content (images of rising above while being stuck in the same place). Still there's a nagging sense that Wiley and grime are flying past each other. Grime needs no further mentorship, no raising out of the gutter now that its “moment” is so much fabled history—see exhibits A and B—and so a return to grime for Wiley isn’t much more than a change of shirts. Instead, it feels like Wiley’s merely put on the first thing he grabbed in the dark this morning.

This is Wiley’s privilege—not lingering on the whys and wherefores of a particular song, because he’s been busy flying god-knows-where for years. He finally broke into the mainstream wearing a Rolex in 2008, but he also likes Casio. It doesn’t matter which he’s wearing.

See how the official release of “Flying” is accompanied by a small pile of spontaneous and haphazard uploads to Wiley’s personal Soundcloud (separate from his “official” release stream). At this point, this isn’t only about grime music, rap music, or dance music. It’s also about unlearning how musicians tend to act in controlled conditions. The Wiley fan thinks, "Wiley's going mad again." Some of the songs inspire amusement, like a one-minute untitled song with ARI COMET that sounds like an Eighties power ballad where the Eighties were hastily Photoshopped out. Some inspire amazement, like “Long Reach,” an instrumental carved and freeze-dried from the hoary bones of some Dipset anthem. Some are old and some are new. Not-grime beat “Mystery Girl” dates back to Roll Deep's 2004 grime mixtape Creeper 2. And why not? Who says culture got any older between 2004 and 2013? Or that there’s a meaningful distance between Casiotone and ringtones? Mostly these sounds come across as ageless as vinyl toys.

Ever since Wiley started releasing the Zip Files for free in 2010, there’s been something blatantly weird about his shifting styles and manic output, something that doesn’t quite fit in with anyone's idea of what a proper artist does on any ground. A proper artist doesn't only evolve, develop new ideas, and succeed at them. A proper artist also appears to be trying to do those things all the time, like Kanye, so that everybody can weigh in on how that's going. Wiley, who switches record labels almost at random and leaks his own albums on Twitter, works against himself as much he works the ways we'd expect.

That is why Wiley's pop output deserves a better response than being filed straight into the loony bin of the Wiley archives, until the next day he comes back to grime. "How Is It Going" might be the saddest song Wiley has released to date. How can that even be, when the song defines banal? Wiley sings, in autotune, "Tell me how your life is going / coz I wanna know / why you're ignoring me / Get on the phone." It could be any song about any girl. The whole song could be a Fruity Loops preset ghostwritten by K. K. Slider. The melody on the chorus sounds like it's being squeezed through a plastic accordion. The whistle-refrain at the end feels downright patronizing. Is this man 34 or three?

Despite all that, "How Is It Going" is mournful. Partly because we can believe Wiley might have written it seconds after trying to place an actual phone call that morning. Wiley's been content to freestyle and adlib for hours on a Ustream patched into his hotel room, showing us that the music thing is so much playtime for him, and we can take or leave what comes after. Let's go back to the song's punctuation-less title and lyrics. Does Wiley really want to know? Or is he just saying?

Wiley in his best moments always appears to be thinking out loud, in just the place where he's standing, checking the mirror from different angles, and never quite meeting our own gaze, going against so much that we consider meaningful. See Drake, who is probably the reason Wiley makes so many autotune songs. Wiley recently hijacked Drake's "Girls Love Beyonce," riding his own autotune like a photobomb in between Drake's verses. One commenter writes, "Lmfaoo this Wiley guy sound funny and lyrics a little corny." The cameo reveals the difference between Wiley and Drake, and everybody who is interesting in hip-hop for that matter. Drake appears to have a heart and a soul, even if it's a tarnished essence scraped from an iron lung. Wiley's a step colder. His voice has no grain. It slides from the speaker straight to the space behind your head. You can't tell how Wiley truly thinks or feels, even when he lays it bare.

Ryan Kuo is the world's foremost Wiley expert. He's on Twitter - @twerkface