slowthai Gets UGLY on his Latest Album
By Parker Bennett
Self-love is a struggle. It’s a Sisyphusian, tear-stained slog up an ever-rising hill towards a goal you’re not quite sure if you’ll ever be able to reach. At any given time, every single one of us is buried neck-deep in that muck and doing everything we can to try and find a foothold to escape. For British rapper slowthai, those dregs of self-hatred are a wellspring of artistic inspiration and the entire concept behind his latest album, UGLY (U Gotta Love Yourself).
Since 2018, slowthai has been steadily making waves in nearly every alternative subgenre imaginable. He’s primarily a rapper, and his early releases definitely fit the bill for UK Grime, albeit his own brand. In just 5 short years, though, slowthai has utterly shattered the rap categorization and has flirted with rock, punk, electronic, hyperpop, and even hardcore alongside a slew of notable collaborators. His debut album, Nothing Great About Britain (2019), was a critical success and his raucous live shows quickly garnered a reputation for ruffling feathers. (while on tour in 2019, he often brandished a severed dummy head of then Prime Minister Boris Johnson) 2021’s TYRON was a concise follow-up that saw him becoming an international star and only further cemented his beloved status as one of modern music’s most original voices. So where the hell do you go from there?
Lucky for us, it’s UGLY. slowthai’s latest offering is by far the furthest he’s strayed from his Grime roots, and instead sees punk taking a formidable center-stage. But fear not, this isn’t a Machine Gun Kelly situation; this album is punk not just in its sound, but in its filthy, middle-finger-up, self-loathing essence. Produced almost entirely by Dan Carey – known for his collaborations with bands like Fontaines D.C. and Black Midi – the influences for this album are far-reaching. There’s touches of house, post-rock, shoegaze, post-punk and about every other RateYourMusic staple that’s defined angsty boys’ playlists for the past 5 years. Somehow, though, all of that craziness is carefully concocted into a concise, cathartic experience that might just be slowthai’s best work yet. At the very least, it’s certainly his most vulnerable, and by the time the album comes to a close, you’d have to be partially cybernetic to not have felt something.
From just the first few seconds of its opening track “Yum”, UGLY sounds completely distinct from anything in slowthai’s catalog thus far. A thumping bassline centers the song around an undulating dance rhythm, which quickly devolves into scattered drums and screaming walls of synth. slowthai’s vocals are impossible to pin down, and he rambles spoken-word frustrations on therapy sessions before launching into a graphic lyrical depiction of drug-addled sex binges. This entire track is an exercise in overindulgence, and much like its lyrical content, only deals in extremes. Nothing about these depictions of sex and drugs are glamorous; it’s an ugly, ugly experience that you simply can’t turn away from, and the unbridled rawness is truly beautiful to behold. As slowthai chants the song’s chorus towards the tail-end of the track, “Excuse me while I self-destruct/’Cause I don’t give a fuck,” it’s clear that this is not going to be an album that pulls any punches whatsoever.
And pulls punches it does not. Lead single “Selfish” is a brooding slow-build that hums a head-bobbing melody under mountains of distortion. slowthai’s vocals are ragged and prone to devolving into screams, and his lyrics are pained condemnations of materialism and group-think. His singing transforms into strained crooning on the song’s bridge, where a muffled choir accompanies the words, “And we got what we deserve/Somehow we never learn.” It all comes together in a cathartic cacophony of screeching guitars and buzzing synth lines that bury slowthai’s muttered repetition of the phrase, “I’m just thinking for myself.”
The tracklist takes a decidedly more pleasant left-turn with the tracks “Sooner” and “Feel Good.” Well, pleasant might be the wrong word for it, both songs are still laden with lyrics referencing deteriorating mental health and a heavy dependence on substances to get through the day… but they kind of sound happy! “Sooner” features an uncredited appearance from indie London artist Ethan P. Flynn – who also helped with production – and his warbling chorus is a glorious singalong that makes for one of the most foot-tapping jams on the album. Single “Feel Good” is a deliciously short bop that sees a pitched up slowthai grinning through the pain and repeating the mantra of “I feel so good” ad nauseam, alongside an addictive bassline that absolutely gushes energy. The track also features some uncredited backing vocals from Shygirl, and if you’re unfamiliar with her music, click out of this review and get acquainted before you read another word.
“Never Again” is a melancholy track in which slowthai tells the story of reconnecting with a lost lover. His muted spoken word, paired with gentle guitars and pittering drums, is heartbreakingly poignant, and when the story reaches its tragic conclusion (no spoilers here), his anguish is palpable. While “Never Again” is an exercise in understated melancholy, “Falling” is a full-on explosion of shoegaze maximalism that builds to one of the most emotional climaxes of the project, where slowthai is screaming his heart out amid a sea of distorted guitar and whining synths. It’s not all downtrodden doom-and-gloom, though, “Fuck It Puppet” is a borderline horrorcore interlude that sees slowthai trading bars with his pestering conscience that ends in the two having a falling out and going their separate ways. There’s also “HAPPY,” (my personal favorite) an angsty homage to post-punk that sounds like a no-fucks-given strut down the street in your most stomping boots.
The proceedings come to a close with “Tourniquet” and “25% Club.” The former is a loping rhythm that sees some of the only piano on the whole project, and it gradually builds into another visceral performance from slowthai that seems him screaming his lungs out. The track de-crescendos with a gorgeous string arrangement which transitions beautifully into “25% Club.” This final track is a stripped back, lo-fi recording built around a guitar line that I can’t help but feel sounds like “Terminal Paradise” by Adrianne Lenker. It’s a beautiful way for the album to conclude, and feels like a refreshingly laid-back lamentation in comparison to the frenetic insanity that defined the first half of the record.
If you’re a fan of slowthai’s rap career alone, this album might disappoint you. It’s a drastic divergence from anything hip-hop related, and sonically it’s a pretty challenging web of harsh noise and experimentation. For more open-minded fans, however, UGLY is an absolute gem of an album and marks a glorious evolution for one of the most interesting figures in modern music. UGLY lives up to its name; it's a rugged, gut-bucket concoction that sounds like the musical equivalent of a man losing his mind. But by the end of it, there’s a catharsis in this project that years of therapy could only hope to accomplish. Even though self-love is one of the most grueling practices anyone can endure, wallowing in the filth with slowthai for 40 odd minutes is one of the best musical experiences I’ve had in a while, and I can’t wait to dive back in again.