Since he released Konnichiwa in 2016, Skepta has become Britain’s first truly international MC, respected across the board for his craft and his artistry. When the world first began to take notice of grime and U.K. rap, and MC’s were throwing stage shows with Kanye West and sitting on features with Drake, when the arenas started to fill and the albums finally began to sell, it felt like the beginning of things in Britain. It was the kind of watershed moment you recount to your kids decades on when time has turned the years to myth and legend.
In many ways it was the future we never saw coming, the reality we never expected, like Neil Armstrong leaving boot prints on a dusty moon or Roger Bannister hurtling through the four-minute mile. Skepta and co. were the breakers of chains. In his own way, on this little island at the top of the globe, he has irretrievably changed things. MC’s and rappers are no longer resigned to the shadows, snapping around for scraps, compromising themselves for paychecks. The true voice of Britain is now heard on the global stage.
On Ignorance Is Bliss, the North London MC’s fifth studio album, the tone is set early. “Bullet from a Gun” opens up the project, a sharp stream of consciousness floating over a blue instrumental. Three years have passed since the release of Konnichiwa and Skepta has a lot to share. In the opening minutes, where the low bass grumbles and the flutes tug you into trance, he speaks of the quiet moments that can change a life: things like the birth of his daughter and how, during a trip back to Nigeria, he found himself staring at his grandfather’s grave, looking at the family name entombed on the stone: “The same as mine. Nothing to fear, I’ve been here from time.” It’s Skepta at his most personal. If Konnichiwa was the album that ushered in this golden era of British rap, then Ignorance Is Bliss is a deep voyage into the interior, revealing the inner workings and struggles of the character that helped make it all happen.
Like almost every Skepta album, there are several references to the rapper’s Nigerian identity. National dishes and drinks like pepper soup and palm wine are name dropped. On “You Wish,” he takes things a little deeper, confiding that, “My Dad never came to London, to put tickets on windscreens. If it’s not greatness, what does this shit mean?” That single sentence captures a generation of family history. It is a subtle nod to the immigrant experience in a country where parents (like mine and many others in Britain) arrived with big ambitions for better lives, and left dreams unfulfilled to provide for their children.
Perhaps clarity is Skepta’s greatest gift. When he speaks, the hardest of ears eventually soften, his baritone drawl fine like the butcher’s steel piercing through flesh. On tracks like “Going Through It,” the wall between artist and listener come down, the background noise fades out, and what remains is an intimacy — a revealing inner monologue between man and song. On the third verse, as the song draws to a close, he says, “Look how they look at me, never gonna be the same. Said they wanna be like me, you don't know what you're sayin'.” “Going Through It” sees confessions roll in from the most vulnerable spots of Skepta’s soul, and while listening, it becomes clear that his life is perhaps far from the eternal ecstasy that onlookers may imagine.
Beyond this, Ignorance Is Bliss is not a 13-track confessional. There are songs to spark smiles across straight lips, to break feet into dance at the raves. “What Do You Mean?” with J Hus stirs scents of early millennium 50 Cent, the pair shooting it out lyric for lyric over sinister, Dr Dre-esque drums. “Gangsta” gives us another memorable Boy Better Know posse cut, with Shorty, Jammer, JME and Frisco all lyrically flexing. “Greaze Mode” with Nafe Smallz, is the one you’ll most likely hear at festivals across the summer.
While pre-album releases like “Praise” with A$AP Rocky and “Energy” with Wizkid differed widely in sound — hip-hop to afrobeats, American influences to African — the pendulum swings on Ignorance Is Bliss are less broad. Eleven of the album’s 13 songs are produced or co-produced by Skepta. And it shows. There is a cohesiveness to proceedings, a skittish, almost haunting stamp to some of the production. Throughout, there’s a flair that compliments his intense delivery.
Hooks for songs like “Redrum” and “You Wish” are pristine. Crisp, laconic one-and-two-liners that after a few listens, imprint themselves on the brain. It’s a diamond blueprint that has underpinned his career. That minimal approach is a habit, whether deliberate or natural, that has been endearing Skepta to supporters since he first picked up a mic. Break out songs like “That’s Not Me,” early hits like “Too Many Man,” and anthems like “Shutdown” magnify the fact that hooks are his great unifier. He has a formidable ability, able to reel a crowd in with just a few words.
The climate surrounding Ignorance Is Bliss is different from that of his last album. In the realms of U.K. rap and grime, the golden land that seemed out of reach pre-Konnichiwa, has since come to pass. The prophecy has been fulfilled, and as Skepta says on “Glow in the Dark”: “The streets at an all-time high, the government at an all-time low.” The days of British rappers bending themselves for mainstream and foreign acceptance are gone, and where there was once an anxiety about the future, an uncertainty about how far things could go, there is now calm. U.K. rap, and the culture that surrounds it, is not a brief flash across mainstream windshields, but a force that will likely outlive us all. And with Skepta continuing to pave the road ahead, the future is brighter than it’s ever been.