In a time of uncertainty and self-isolation, it seems strange to write about love in UK rap but maybe the gentle synths and smooth backing tracks can help to mitigate our collective anxiety, even if only for a few minutes.
It might appear disjunctive to link together the seemingly abrasive, up-tempo sound of UK grime, rap and hip hop, with the mellow romance of love songs, but artists such as Kano and Stormzy weave the two effortlessly. We are used to the fast tempo of these genres (grime’s bpm is between 135-140, and rap’s is 80-110) giving us some great club classics, but they also take the classic love song and prove that such a timeless emotion doesn’t require Sinatra and Norah Jones. The sound of love is changing – and these artists are showing us how.
Stormzy, perhaps the most famous grime artist (though some suggest he’s sliding into pop), is well known for his previous high-profile relationship with presenter Maya Jama, which influences a lot of his music. ‘Birthday Girl’ is one of these songs. Infused with honey tones, this downbeat track juxtaposes later tunes like the punchier ‘Big For Your Boots’. ‘Birthday Girl’ as a dedication to Maya is sensitive and delicate, Stormzy details his planning of her 22nd birthday night out as the “Birthday Girl” despite himself going away on tour. The line “I’ll be your shinin’ knight, where’s my armour?” harks back to a period of courtship and wooing, suggesting that we still appreciate the values of honour and chivalry, but they look (and sound) different today. The interlude sounds like a voice message from Stormzy himself, finishing “Lots of love/ love you always”. The intimacy and absence of rhyme in the message sets it out as a significant portion of the song, underscoring the message that love in this tune is something that requires commitment, dedication and generous effort.
Kano is another leading light in the scene, which is obvious from his music’s success. The conversational style that begins ‘Nite Nite’ personalises the song whilst the unceasing riff in E♭tuning conveys a tenderness, a warmer sound for a song sang in earnest. In the song, Kano seems to be wrestling with himself, unable to understand why he “can’t commit to girls” and desperate not to “spoil” their relationship. Though, this seems resolved in the middle of the song when he declares “I ain’t going nowhere”. His restlessness finally solved, he sings “Cos she’s ideal, like a nice meal, / And a night in, with a nice feel, /Maybe some wine, / Maybe sometime we could hold hands in the park, in the sunshine”. Here there is an almost tangible sense of the luxuriousness of love: the wine, the meal, the sun; the images belie a sense of richness, fulfilment and bliss in love. The backing refrain “Here we go again” throughout this verse adds both textural complexity and complexity of meaning, as it acts as a kind of memento mori within his utopia – suggesting that he’s been in this position before – and these previous sunbathed visions didn’t last. Despite this, ‘Nite Nite’ offers us a vision of love as wholesome and simple, defying many of the tongue in cheek or irreverent tones of this genre.
In my opinion, one of the most emotive raps of contemporary times is Dave’s ‘How I Met My Ex’. The 7-minute long ballad depicts love with the same tenderness as the above. The rap is effectively telling the story of a failed modern romance, very different to that of Stormzy and Kano. The backing piano riff embeds within the rap a sense of melancholy and doom from the off, which is enhanced by the use of minor chord formations.
The crescendo-like nature of Dave’s verse, beginning solemnly and gaining speed and breathlessness is indicative of the speed that he fell in love with the girl he apostrophises. Though, he laments the attention that his girlfriend is getting from other rappers and addresses his lack of effort “What if he actually replies?” “What if he’s doing all the things that I’m supposed to do?”. The series of rhetorical questions in the verse suggests an increasing descent into madness and jealousy, which could indicate the all-consuming nature of his love. The song successfully depicts a modern relationship and the anxieties that the technological age has brought to the fore. The past love that Dave laments is at once intimate and relatable and effectively manages to depict the complexities of love in a modern age.
Looking at these songs, they are all relatively slow rhythms infused with softness, complemented by a simple backing riff. All three artists have songs with more vigorous rhythms (see ‘Lady Killer’ by Kano) thus illuminating the arbitrariness of the genre they typically adhere to.
It is clear to see that depictions of love in UK Hip Hop and Grime vary from artist to artist, where Dave laments, Stormzy delights. Mostly though it’s clear that songs about love do not have to be bound by the typical constraints of love song, but the emotion can be illustrated in a more contemporary form.
art by Jennifer Van Der Merwe