UK Rapper Slowthai has moved through portals to find unique ways to inflect the emotional weight coming through differing avenues, whether through the politically astute Nothing Great About Britain or introspective thoughts through zany production on Tyron. That continues to be the case on Ugly, where we hear him divert from Hip-Hop to deliver an array of punk and alternative rock tracks flourishing through progressively recorded instrumentals and vocal performances, more akin to the DIY Hard/Punk-Rock era of the early 80s. It fits Slowthai’s vocal aesthetics naturally, bolstering the emotional angst, making its delivery have the same impact as the Garage influence beneath past Grime beats he’s rapped over. Ugly continues to boast that angst, almost making it feel more adjudicated to his style, but it never rides on the coast of genericism as Slowthai’s writing builds depth. It isn’t that cut and dry; Slowthai is allowing these soundscapes to guide him through these creative highs where he finds somewhere in-between the Hüsker Du’s and Rage Against the Machine, yet it stumbles to have consistency on the production side.
Slowthai begins Ugly by slowly assimilating his listener toward this new sound, blending the known (Hip-Hop and Grime) with the new (Punk and Indie Rock), waiting for him to open up lyrically, slowly. However, this isn’t the first time Slowthai has worn his heart on his sleeves, but it occasionally got rattled by the abundance of sweet chaos in the music surrounding them. That isn’t absent since Slowthai’s dictation of the contextual direction is at a peak. Here, we hear him separating styles without the production taking a step back, whether it’s the riotous “Yum” or the slowed-down Lou Reed interpolation on “Falling,” allowing us to sense who he is now and where he wants to take the album. Unlike Lil Yachty and his album Let’s Start Here, and more like Mac Miller’s foray into Alt-Rock/Soul with Circles, Slowthai isn’t here for our (critics) feelings on the legitimacy of his music. Instead, he’s spearheading what he hears and visualizes while putting his pen to paper. It doesn’t always land, like “Yum,” where it comes on a bit emphatic, or “Never Again,” which takes a more somber approach instead of expressing a range of emotions from his feeling of loss after a breakup.
As you listen to Ugly from front to back, there’s an understanding that Slowthai knows how to weave these rich instrumentations into a creative run of tracks that break down barriers. “Happy” beautifully encompasses the elements that make this stylistic journey more of a thrill. His vocals are unpolished. He brings a spoken word element to reinvigorate his emotions. He lets the sound run thoroughly melodically while leaving room for more powerful moments for emphasis. There’s a consistency to the production as it takes influence from different sonic complexions and excels with the synergy it carries with Slowthai. It doesn’t matter the tempo or speed of each core element for each specific song. There are some crisp performances for fans to indulge in and give the curious something to latch onto, especially as rappers don’t tend to push boundaries consistently when exploring rock music. But with Slowthai bringing past producer Kwes Darko, Beabadoobee’s producer Jacob Budgen, and Dan Carey, who recently produced Wet Leg’s debut and Black Midi’s in 2019, they add a fantastic sense of equilibrium imbuing through instrumentals.
Slowthai’s producers aim for a consistent flow; in doing so, we receive solid in-song transitions that boast its strengths. Slowthai can shift delivery smoothly, like on “Sooner,” where the flow and melodies collide with sheer ferocity and viscosity, showcasing how it comes naturally to him, especially as he plays around with them. Though some tracks have more Hip-Hop notes, pushing away from the rock-like foundation, it isn’t hard to note how fantastic “Fuck It Puppet” is, despite running short and leaving you hungry for more. The energy deriving from many tracks is infectious, maintaining your attention, boasting the slower songs more, and making them have an outstanding presence compared to the weaker ones, like the more mundane “Feel Good.” Overlaying these instrumentals are some poignantly focused songwriting, switching melodies and styles, speaking to different factions of the mental gymnastics one juggle, like happiness, cutting ties with those around, or self-resilience to be better, despite sometimes having to act selfish.
Lil Wayne mostly incorporated autotune over predominantly redundant rock instrumentals on Rebirth, and Kid Cudi took experimental too far with Speedin Bullet to Heaven. Trippie Redd has this punk cadence in his vocal style, bringing minimal intrigue into his craft without being completely innovative. But what separates Slowthai from them is this natural cadence, where he isn’t coming at this with a try-hard mentality, letting it all flow with his style. Though it doesn’t always translate, many highs keep the gears churning as you plunge into a journey through the album. From Slowthai’s lyricism to his co-producers finding a solid happy medium, the lows can take from the directional quality and leave you with tracks that form an album with gaps. Fortunately, it’s this worthwhile listen.