Following the success of the breakout hit “Tyron,” slowthai is back with his third studio album “Ugly.” Released on Friday with a 38-minute run-time, the British artist is back with even bolder, brasher and more drug-fueled music than before. Trading in the traditional rap/hip-hop sound for a more alternative rock sound seems to be the most significant trend within the music industry, with artists like Lil Yachty and Quadeca coming out with vastly different sounds than their previous work.
In a recent interview with The FADER, slowthai went into the idea of positive messaging and shifting to a more indie-rock-sounding project — and this album has indie written all over it. Starting off with “Yum,” we see him discussing a night of heavy drinking and arguments with his therapist. As if it was pulled fresh out of “Yeezus,” the song is a synth board slam to the side of the head but in a welcome way.
The following two songs, “Selfish” and “Sooner,” seek to establish that indie-pop vibe mentioned in his interviews. With pretty traditional drums and upbeat strumming, “Sooner” is a drastic departure from the rage-induced screaming accompanying the opening track. The positive, yet self-reflective lyrics give you the feeling that despite his fight with addiction and suicidal thoughts, slowthai is really giving it his best to make it through each year.
A rather far cry from the “fuck the mainstream” attitude that he’s adopted through the last two projects, “Ugly” seems to be more focused on himself and the self-reflection that comes with years of scars and emotional trauma. While not the strongest singer, the writing is there and it is impactful, especially with Fontaines D.C. and Shygirl coming on as collaborators.
Sonically impressive, but not technical, slowthai manages to capture the perfect amount of angst within the project that belongs on the most frequent Zumiez shopper’s playlist. But what separates bland indie-rock from the standouts is the dichotomy between the negative and positive emotions of the artist. That same chipper attitude found through the first half of the song is traded in for far more depressing topics.
From the story of a former lover murdered by a drugged-out spouse on “Never Again” to hallucinations of suicidal thoughts on “Fuck It Puppet,” “Ugly” goes beyond the often superficial tones that we see from the genre (I’m sorry Willow, I’m definitely referring to you here). Even without the background knowledge on slowthai, the vocal performance and visceral imagery are enough for even the most unfamiliar listener to understand that he’s been through some stuff. And perhaps it’s the very fact he bears his tortured soul for all to see that makes the album hit harder than others.
Without vague analogies, melodramatic crooning or hiding behind melancholy gibberish, slowthai is able to deliver a pure indie-rock experience that left me rather impressed. While it may not be on the levels of say, “Melancholy and the Infinite Sadness” by Smashing Pumpkins, at least his voice remains articulate through the entire project. This would be a trivial detail, but it makes wailing along with him much easier in your own personal moments of grief or happiness.
What adds to the impressiveness of the project is the fact that there are no features — a pretty large departure from “Tyron,” which saw features from artists like A$AP Rocky, Skepta, Dominic Fike and James Blake. Because of this, “Ugly” comes off as a far more personal project rather than one meant to be played on the radio or atop streaming charts. This personal connection to slowthai continues to work in his favor, as it establishes him as more than just a talented UK rapper.
The race to break out of the rap/hip-hop box seems to be increasing as growing rappers seek to prove themselves as more than what’s defined by their genre. Drake with dance music, Lil Yachty with alternative rock and slowthai with his latest entry to the ever-growing pantheon of experimentation. However, what sets him apart from the aforementioned is that he sounds at home here, and I have no doubt that if he were to transition genres completely, he’d do just fine.
“Ugly” proves that versatility comes in many forms. Slowthai proves time again that he’s more than what the press makes of him. While his singing is far from the best, his ability to channel the genre’s greatest makes him even more impressive as an artist. Still the tortured soul who grabbed attention on the Glastonbury pyramid, slowthai has gone beyond expectations probably much to his haters’ ire.