I never really got on the Kanye bandwagon back in the 2000s. For a brief moment I was convinced of the rapper’s genius when I heard the beat drop on “Runaway” for the first time, which leads into a pretty stupid chorus and, ninety seconds into the track, one of the worst opening lyrics to a verse I’ve ever heard. It was always a little frustrating to me—particularly on My Big Fat Dark Twisted Fantasy or whatever—how someone who could cobble together such immediately engaging instrumentals could pretty much say whatever dumb shit he wanted on the verses and walk away with the status of icon that no full-MAGA Republican crusade could erase.
There’s a reason I’m writing about Kanye West as a way of introducing the second album from slowthai, whose Joker-fied take on grime won our sicko hearts a few years back with his politicized hardcore-hip-hop debut, and it has something to do with the similarly competing vibes of his follow-up LP—an origin-story prequel of sorts, the kind-of self-titled TYRON. With a pivot from the more niche corner of grime (and with a guest list catering more to U.S. audiences), this record experiments with a variety of sounds that frequently border on the type of earnest beauty explored on “Runaway,” while slowthai continues to invoke images of shitting your pants punctuated by goofy sound effects. While his guests rap about Jodorowsky’s Endless Poetry, slowthai’s name-dropping Jar Jar Binks—even his intended sojourn into introspection is riddled with the immature antics he’s come to be known for.
This, inexplicably, is the charm of slowthai. TYRON is a step back for the rapper, an opportunity to reveal the inner monologue of the guy crouching on Jimmy Fallon’s desk as he steals the show for his friend’s network TV debut, among other bizarre public spectacles. While there’s plenty of tenderness and vulnerability on the LP, most of it comes from the lullaby instrumental on “nhs,” or the soft vocals of Deb Never on “push.” The record almost feels like a prank: everyone involved—rappers, producers, even the artist who provided the album art, which is deceptively dense with symbols—took this project way more seriously that slowthai did.
Which isn’t to say TYRON is all shit jokes and Brad-Pitt-in-Fight–Club giggles—there are some truly unsettling moments of personal turmoil on the record, accentuated by the rapper’s penchant for skin-crawl visuals (the horror-themed “CANCELLED” video dropped in the wake of last year’s Psycho–inspired track with Denzel Curry). As the record pivots from its all-caps first half to something of a straightjacket-confined second act, nothing really prepares you for the emotional peak the album abruptly reaches in its final minute. Channeling rap’s tragic jokesters Danny Brown and El-P, “adhd” does so much more than diagnose slowthai’s constant need to fill the silence between his words with mouth sounds and other samples. It’s a brutal, humanizing moment nowhere to be found in Kanye’s discography, solidifying the record’s thesis that there’s much more to slowthai’s personality than he’s interested in channeling through the antics of music.