Content warning: suicide
From Lil Yachty’s psychedelic Let’s Start Here to Machine Gun Kelly’s insipid Mainstream Sellout, hip-hop is no stranger to genre crossovers, especially into the world of rock.
Joining the crowd is Tyron Frampton — better known as Northampton’s own Slowthai. Boasting a fittingly nihilist discography and a prominent feature on Gorillaz’s Song Machine, the rapper’s turn toward punk on Ugly is no surprise. Even then, the selling point of the project is not its genre but its raw display of the artist’s mental state.
On Ugly, released March 3, the medium is most certainly the message, with Slowthai’s post-punk-influenced performances adding another dimension of expression that no mere combination of words could ever do. On the instrumental end, executive producer Dan Carey, who’s previously worked with Franz Ferdinand and Squid, and longtime collaborator Kwes Darko transform Slowthai’s mental turmoil into a visceral listening experience, squeezing noisy guitars and percussion into the mix.
Laced with industrial drums, the abrasive opener “Yum” begins with spoken word and eventually devolves into a failed therapy session in song form, setting the stage for mental decline and suffering. “Tourniquet” lives up to its name, with each consecutive verse squeezing tighter than the last. If the world is Slowthai’s oyster, he’s the pearl trapped inside, gasping for air. Among the more structured tracks, “Happy” finds the MC fighting his romantic desire to leave a constraining relationship: “I would give anything for a smile,” he sings. “Said you’ll see me at my lowest/ … It’s where you keep me.”
Worn down by a road of twists and turns, Slowthai grips onto happiness anywhere he can find it; as described on “Selfish,” this means kissing his baby before putting him to sleep. It’s a bittersweet situation, though, as his infant son is also the child of his ex-fiance. “Never Again” presents a bitter story one can only hope is fictional projection, nostalgically recounting conversations with a former partner, her parents and her brother — all for it to culminate in dreadful, heartrending tragedy. Slowthai’s forlorn delivery of vulnerable lines is something only otherwise found in the most eye-watering A24 films.
Even while dealing with his emotional trauma, Slowthai’s able to tap into his bread and butter of societal issues. UGLY’s titular song lays out the world through his eyes, and as one might expect, it’s ugly. Written around the start of the Ukraine crisis, it manifests the angst of manufactured conflicts with lyrics such as “Stuck gettin’ lead, we’re dogs out the kennel/ All this trauma in the name of a medal.” “Wotz Funny” is a driving rock jam that solidifies Slowthai as a punk personality, rhyming bluntly about institutional failings: “Single mother, three kids, no butter/ But she’s got a pair of tits, gotta get it how you live.”
Slowthai can do much more than just tell a tragic tale. Taking the golden rule of “show, don’t tell” to heart, he plants the listener in the maelstrom that is his mind. Songs such as the reverberant “Falling” capture the sensation of drifting aimlessly in a void of despair while the upbeat “Feel Good” — masquerading as an over-the-top pop-punk anthem — is an endless stream of affirmations, representing his delusional attempts to lift his own spirits. “F— It Puppet” is a conversation with the voices in his head, with his inner demons gaslighting him to commit suicide.
Being less experienced with singing and songwriting, Slowthai’s repetitive hooks can turn tiresome, his poor intonation grating. Still, the sheer humanity in his voice evokes just as much emotion as any trained singer. He isn’t trying to record the next “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — he’s sharing his ugly, incessant thoughts with the world, however imperfect they may be.
Ugly, an acronym for “U Gotta Love Yourself,” seems to be a mantra Slowthai himself needs to sort out the ugliness of his brain. Hard-hitting, honest and focused, the album can make for a difficult listen — not because it’s poorly assembled, but because it’s so immersive that any listener would be concerned for Slowthai’s well-being.