Home Read Albums Of The Week: Slowthai | Ugly

Albums Of The Week: Slowthai | Ugly

It stands for U Gotta Love Yourself — and fittingly, the U.K. rapper comes into his own on his third LP, looking inward lyrically while embracing musical collaboration.

THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: “The Ugly album cover is up close and personal, with the camera zooming in on the left side of Slowthai’s face. The title of the album — an acronym for U Gotta Love Yourself — is freshly tattooed beneath his eye. Musically, the U.K. rapper’s third album might just show a side of him that people haven’t yet heard.

However, attentive listeners may have noticed this musical tendency before. It was evident on with the punk-rock gallop of Doorman and on Missing, a collaboration with rock band Slaves (now renamed Soft Play). During radio sessions for his number-one follow-up album, Tyron, he covered The Verve and Elliott Smith. He has cited Gesaffelstein, Juelz Santana, Elliott Smith, Radiohead, Nirvana, Mount Kimbie, Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys, Jay-Z, Sex Pistols, Justice, Oasis and Die Antwoord as musical influences.

“The first album was the sound of where I’m from and everything I thought I knew,” says Slothai — whose real name is Tyron Kaymone Frampton — of his Mercury-nominated, politically charged 2019 debut Nothing Great About Britain, followed in 2021 by his more personal sophomore release Tyrone. “The second album is what was relevant to me at that moment in time, the present. And this album is completely me — about how I feel and what I want to be … it’s everything I’ve been leading up to.”

Ugly is about reconnecting with first principles. Plunging into rock music, with as much singing as rapping, it is both a striking departure for slowthai and a return to Slowthai’s roots. When he was a teenager in Northampton he loved emotionally intense rock music, notably the likes of Nirvana, Radiohead and Daniel Johnston, and wanted to join a band — but that’s hard when you don’t play an instrument and feel self-conscious about singing in public. Hip-hop, his other love, enabled him to be a self-reliant vocalist and producer.

“This album was me trying to emulate the spirit of the brotherhood ethos that bands have. Music is about the feeling and emotion that goes into it. Like an artist making a painting, it’s the expression of that moment in time. I really felt like I didn’t want to rap, whereas before, rap was the only way I could express myself with the tools I had. Now that I have more freedom to create and do more, why wouldn’t we change it up?”

Produced by Dan Carey at his home studio in South London alongside frequent collaborator Kwes Darko, with further production work from Zach Nahome and Sega Bodega, Ugly is a fluid combination of musicians including Ethan P. Flynn, Shygirl, Jockstrap’s Taylor Skye, Beabadoobee guitarist Jacob Bugden, drummer Liam Toon, and on the dark and woozy title track, his friends Fontaines D.C.

On Ugly, slowthai rediscovers what he fears he was losing. His debut was irresistible for its riotous enthusiasm and maverick authenticity, but success began to eat away at both qualities. Naturally funny and honest, he worried that what began as raw self-expression was congealing into a persona — a cartoon version of himself. “People see you as a character. They don’t actually know who you are. You’re stereotyped as the nutter who gets in his boxers. I was doing that to show that you should be free at shows and enjoy yourself but you choose to see me as an idiot.”

To aid his growth he took up therapy, only to realize that the therapist was telling him things he had once known but had forgotten. That’s the theme of Sooner, which sounds like a revved-up Libertines. “I didn’t have a care in the world when I was rolling around with my friends in a 306 and falling in love. Now I have to think twice about what I say, but why? The fear of not being liked? Who gives a fuck? I wish I’d come to the epiphany quicker. It took me 10 years to get back to where I was originally and learn that everything I believed along the way didn’t mean fuck all,” he says.

He did get some songs out of therapy, though. Fuck It Puppet was his therapist’s name for the self-destructive imp on his shoulder, pulling him back to the behaviour he’s been trying to escape. One of Ugly‘s themes is the irony of life. Feel Good (with backing vocals from Shygirl) is not about feeling good but about not being happy, although the songs have enough rampaging energy to make you feel otherwise. Wotz Funny, growling like The Stooges, explores why we laugh at things that we shouldn’t. The wracked ballad Tourniquet is a metaphor for giving away pieces of himself, like amputated limbs. Falling is a Pixies-esque evocation of numbing depression.

There is room for one tour de force of cinematic hip0hop storytelling. Never Again‘s urban tragedy, featuring Ethan P. Flynn, draws on the dislocation of going from a council estate to the top of the charts. To close, the unexpectedly tender 25% Club is the album’s hard-earned happy ending. Ugly is a new direction but not necessarily a permanent one. The message is change, after all. Internalizing and reflecting; the whole process of making Ugly has been one of relearning not to care what people think and reclaiming the freedom that drew slowthai to music in the first place.

“It doesn’t matter what or who people think you are, you’ve just got to stay true and respect yourself,” Slowthai consludes. “I have Ugly tattooed on my face because it’s a reminder to love myself, rather than put myself down constantly or feel the impression people have of me should determine who I am as a person. At the end of the day, the art I make is for myself, and the music I make is for myself, if I enjoy it then who gives a fuck. So, the way I should live my life should be without any expectations of anyone else. I think it’s something that we all need to hear because everyone needs a smile, and everyone needs a bit of joy and you need to look in yourself to really feel it because no one else can give you the real feeling.”