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Struggling to love slowthai

Words: Dylan Murphy
Photography: Crowns and Owls

Words: Dylan Murphy
Photography: Crowns and Owls

February is Love Month on District and we’re exploring the highs and lows of relationships and discussing love in its many forms. We are happy to welcome slowthai back onto our cover for this month’s Cover Story.

Since his rapid ascent, slowthai‘s career has been embroiled in chaos and controversy. Reconciliation is fundamental to any relationship, even that between musician and music fan. Ahead of his sophomore album TYRON, Dylan Murphy spoke to the Northampton rapper about his soul searching in an attempt to reconcile with one of pop culture’s most divisive characters.

1

The first time I came and did a show I ended up having to walk to the Airbnb in my boxers, somebody stole my trousers. That was the best thing ever. It was freezing but I remember just being out on the main street just wearing shoes and boxer shorts.

slowthai

Those were the words of slowthai as he reminisced about his first show in Dublin. If you are at all familiar with the Northampton MC, you’d be forgiven for thinking wearing clothes irritated him. In his rapid rise from touted MC to the success of his album Nothing Great About Britain, slowthai had become the poster boy for a nation dismayed by the heartless politics of Boris Johnston. Equally as swift was the subsequent backlash following his embarrassing behaviour at the NME Awards. During this wild ride, thai had become the subject of an ongoing cultural conversation about accountability in the public eye. Running adjacent to his turbulent journey were compelling performances that regularly concluded with thai in just a pair of boxers and white socks.

Speaking to me over a Zoom call wrapped up in hoodie, with the drawstrings pulled tight, thai meanders at the casual pace of someone ordering a pizza over the phone as he reminisces about those live shows. It’s a side of Tyron Frampton AKA slowthai that not many have access to. One that is worlds away from the incendiary lyricism, the controversy and the near-naked shows he would become synonymous with. 

As a fan of slowthai, whilst enjoying his music I’ve frequently wrestled with my feelings about him and I know I’m not the only one. So while I am uninterested in continuing any sort of witch hunt, I’m also keen to get a clearer understanding of the duality that he tries to showcase in his two-sided sophomore album TYRON

“That’s what it is, the two sides:  the side you want people to see and the side you don’t necessarily want people to see.”

“It’s just me being as honest as I can and trying to open up…  like a pretty little flower”, he says grinning like a Cheshire cat.

That’s what it is, the two sides:  the side you want people to see and the side you don’t necessarily want people to see.

slowthai

These rolling metaphors are a natural part of the Northampton rapper’s vernacular. It’s easy to join the dots of how the experiences of a working-class man from a satellite town in middle England came to form the lens through which he viewed the world in his debut album. It’s here where the comparisons to Mike Skinner’s colloquial style feel so apt and why critics ardently celebrated his anti-establishment message.

If the semantics peaked in the aftermath of his debut album, then the NME Awards were the record scratch in his ongoing weirdo-punk pantomime. The fiasco brought him hurtling back down to earth and, following an apology and the introduction of national lockdown, he has been hunkered down in his hometown of Northampton with his mum.

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It’s here, surrounded by a hoard of empty Nike shoeboxes, in what looks like the aftermath of a doomsday looting by hypebeasts, that slowthai opens up about what he described as his “shameful” actions. Having been grounded in the East Midlands, thai admits he has had more than enough time to ruminate over the mistakes he’s made. The first half of TYRON is littered with songs spelt in all caps; a loose representation of the brash public image he has accrued. The second half however looks inward in an attempt to embrace his flaws.

Talking on the self-evaluation he underwent in creating the album Ty draws on another metaphor.

“A lot of my boys have gone jail”, he says calmly.

“They come out and have another lease of life and they have thought about all the things they’ve done, but whether they stick to it is another thing.”

“I suppose it’s feeling like you are in jail at home… before I done music I’d always be out on the road trying to make money, then doing music I was travelling a lot and going from that to feeling like you are trapped, you are in prison in your own house. We have all done things in our life and made mistakes and sometimes in the quiet moments you get time to reflect on them. Either you are haunted by the mistakes you’ve made in your life or…” he says, pausing to signpost a more serious comment.

“I’ve got this thing, when I go to sleep I’m the only one that has to deal with the issues of things and memories or traumatic experiences I’ve had in my life and no one else can really feel that. Just coming in and feeling humbled and sorry for certain things and trying to move forward and become a better person. You have to face up to things.”

“I suppose it is soul searching.”

I can only make mistakes and grow and hope I am moving in the right direction. I can’t please everyone. Pleasing everyone you’ll go crazy and end up in a psychiatric ward, feeling like ‘I’m not good enough I’m not good enough’, fuck that. I’ve felt like that my whole life man.

slowthai

slowthai’s openness and vulnerability both on record and during our conversation is admirable. It has endeared listeners to his freewheeling approach and is something he leans into in the second half of TYRON – an album that swaps a sound indebted to the UK underground for bigger production and transatlantic features. This sincerity isn’t lost in the grandeur of a major label release either. Whether it’s inviting vocal inflections from James Blake on ‘Feel Away’, an ode to his younger brother that passed away or ‘Terms’ with alt-pop poster boy Dominic Fike which acts to soothe his lingering insecurities, slowthai is intent in putting all his chips on the table so others don’t fold. 

Moreover, it was just last month, when thai had revealed on Twitter that he thought about taking his own life before thanking fans for sticking with him. Dropping his hood to scratch his head, thai makes it clear that he wants his music’s impact to go beyond New Music Friday and Tik Tok trends, labelling artists that talk about their “fans” as self-centred “weirdos”.

“I’m trying to build a movement of people who think alike and wanna move together.

If we are on the same wavelength we’re family. You’ve changed my life, I hope I can have an impact and try and change yours.”

“I can only make mistakes and grow and hope I am moving in the right direction. I can’t please everyone. Pleasing everyone you’ll go crazy and end up in a psychiatric ward, feeling like ‘I’m not good enough I’m not good enough’, fuck that. I’ve felt like that my whole life man.”

“If I could’ve flown somewhere I would’ve gone to Tibet and become a monk”, he says pushing his finger to the clouds like a skyward Boeing 747.

“But I can’t do that so I’m just fuckin’ in there tormented by things I’ve done and how I’m trying to change.”

“We all make mistakes, it’s not the mistakes that define us, it’s how we go about changing them. That’s just something I’ve been trying to do everyday. It’s a work in progress”.

3

Just a glance at replies to Ty’s tweets will tell you how much his publicised struggles means to fans going through problems of their own. Moreover, in terms of the theme of duality it makes sense – rappers who rip up festival stages and spit in people’s mouths (With their permission) have feelings too and they should have a shot at redemption.

“There’s people who can’t let go of things. You can have one blip and it eradicates everything you’ve ever done”, slowthai says.

“Behind closed doors, they are doing the maddest shit. It just so happens I’m an open book bruv. I’m here. I’m here, you either take me or you leave me. I’m not here to be everyone’s friend.”

While I believe everyone deserves a second chance and I don’t doubt slowthai’s intentions for growth, the positive effects of his music, or the sincerity of his lyrics, I can’t quite reconcile the lingering conflictions I had before our chat. Actions speak louder than words and his resolution to give up alcohol in the aftermath of the controversy, was for sure, an admirable choice. On the other hand, the decision to drop a provocative single in ‘CANCELLED’, can’t help but leave his affirmations feeling hollow.

There’s people who can’t let go of things. You can have one blip and it eradicates everything you’ve ever done.

slowthai

Though he assures me the album was not created in direct response to the incident at the NME Awards, I can’t help but feel he needed to get the last word on an incident that he previously had to apologise for.

Poking fun at cancel culture probably wouldn’t have compromised the sincerity of his apology to Kathryn Ryan but ‘CANCELLED’ responds to the incident by glamorising toxic masculinity in a way that leaves me feeling uneasy. This especially so given the choice to include Skepta whose lyrics ‘How you gonna cancel me? 20 awards on the mantelpiece, pyramid stage at Glastonbury, Girls in the crowd got their hands on me’ carries the torch for other rappers from the school of ‘too famous for repercussions’.

If Nothing Great About Britain tied people’s understanding of him to his publicised antics and politicised worldview, then the introspective lens of Tyron is an attempt to reintroduce himself on his own terms. While songs like ‘Tried’ ‘Feel Away’ and ‘Push’ humanise the intricacies often lost between the hot takes of Twitter’s timeline, it still feels like Ty hasn’t truly reconciled some of his own thoughts.

As our conversation closes, we switch our attention to the cover art for the album which sees slowthai sitting under a tree with an apple on his head and an arrow through his eye. You could take a million meanings from it and still struggle to make sense of it and that’s the point.

“When you research apples and you research trees all these things have so many meanings… That’s why we chose that, cause it can mean whatever it means to you.”

“There’s layers to everything. Everything I do isn’t just ‘this is it. That’s it, this is what it means.’  I try to make it so you can find your own truth in it”

Of course, nobody is perfect and slowthai is deserving of forgiveness, but the truth is, slowthai didn’t get ‘cancelled’. If anything his career actually benefited from the fiasco. Ty reconciles his behaviour in apologies and heartfelt lyrics spun from his own mental prison, but in releasing ‘CANCELLED’ he’s missed an opportunity to display the kind of maturity he aspires to on what is otherwise a great album. Ultimately, I can’t help but feel that Ty fails to see the irony of his own choice of words about his friends in jail:

“They come out and have another lease of life and they have thought about all the things they’ve done, but whether they stick to it is another thing.”

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