This Is My Promo Volumes 1 & 2
or a country supposedly at ease with itself, generations of British musicians have found Britishness to be a rather thorny subject. From The Kinks to The Libertines queasily nostalgic visions of village greens and creeping disdain for the outside world has musically become a by-word for Britishness. On his two electrifying This Is My Promo mixtapes Sway seems as concerned with the slippery notion of national identity as any “Britpop” band.
Since the brief moment early this decade when So Solid Crew and Oxide and Neutrio topped the British charts, home-grown hip-hop and its uniquely British mutations garage and grime has, despite a few critical and mild commercial success, become a shadowy presence, always bubbling slightly beneath the mainstream whilst Americans shift the units.
Sway has managed to get a massive amount of recognition, however, by winning best hip-hop act at this year’s Mobo nominations with only these mix tapes and a couple of singles to his name. Without signing to a major label, he has managed to manoeuvre himself into an enviable position; chased by major label A&R departments simply because he hasn’t signed with one. Sway has taken raps entrepreneurial empire building streak and made it fit his vision rather than co-opting the hollow trappings.
In a scene beset by infighting, Sway cannily declares no allegiance or even preference to any scene, choosing to describe himself simply as a rapper who happens to be British. The two CDs bear this out, setting his witty, inventive flow in a variety of environments, each musical texture throwing different facets of his identity into the light. Veering from a peculiarly English intonation, rolling perhaps sarcastically around each syllable and a tougher delivery knocking words out in concentrated bursts, the finest moments come when these two approaches are reconciled (the harsher delivery spiked with an engaging sing-song sense of humour).
On Promo One’s “Up Your Speed Preview” (the remixed version of which will be released as a single), over a riff nabbed from UK TV’s motor racing coverage, he exhorts the residents of major UK cities to do exactly what the title suggests, put pedal to metal, raise their game, and truly compete with American peers.
Despite honing his craft on the battle scene, the mixture of caution and humour leave him open to criticism; he’s lightweight, a joke or as he caustically remarks; “some backpacker shit.” Perhaps mindful of his critics or just attempting to demonstrate his versatility as an MC, Sway on occasion kicks these traits into touch, the results aren’t exactly terrible. Merely perfunctory. The truth is that it’s this mix of youthful vitality and eyebrow arching maturity that lyrically sets him above his competitors. As he decides on a 1extra two-header with Taz, it’s most probably just jealousy motivating his haters.
It’s obviously insanely reductive to characterise UK hip-hop simply with an inner city culture of tower blocks and tagging and Sway seems very keen to address this rather delusional if common perception. Sure, this is music for the “streets,” but it rings true whether you are walking the pavements of Portsmouth, Plymouth, or Humberside. Sway has a knack of picking out the threads in our culture that ring true everywhere; credit cards, alloy wheels, daytime TV. All undercut by the ubiquitous bass heavy soundtrack that resonates from passing cars wherever in Britain you find yourself.
Like skiffle groups in the dawning days of the rock era British, if one is to use such a stupidly reductive term, urban artists often seem to be grappling with a musical language native to the other side of the Atlantic. British hip-hop seems refracted infinitely through its American influence, forever trapped in an ever-declining hall of mirrors, closing in on itself. Sway attempts to shatter this all by facing the questions head on: “Why is everything coming from abroad?,” he asks somewhat rhetorically, acknowledging the debit but the scary rebuttal is not slow in coming, loaded with a possibly less than a respectful nod to Jay Z as over Nas’s beats he declares: “The pound is stronger than the dolla (Holla!)”
This defiantly irreverent show of national pride is the defining line of “Thief’s Theme Freestyle.” Not since Blur toyed with calling their second album “England vs. America” has a UK artist so explicitly shown such disdain for transatlantic “special relations.” Whether any of his American peers will be roused to diss him back at this point seems rather unlikely though.
Sway’s ruefully nationalistic approach is not to be confused with the insubstantial geezerdom peddled to ever diminishing returns by Mike Skinner, neither does it curdle into myopic defiance. If not entirely celebratory, his Englishness is defined by inclusiveness. Neither backwards-looking nostalgia nor searing portraits of inner city deprivation, but forward-looking clear sighted optimism for a British scene barely beyond teething. “Pepsi” is the keynote track on the first of his two Promo’s. Over J Kwon’s “Tipsy,” we’re thrown into the midst of the kind of house party no one wants to tidy up after. Our protagonist is on a mission to get his “wackest track” played by the DJ. Every line is a killer bursting with humour and undercutting the original’s hedonism with a mixture of bewilderment and disgust. The track manages to touch on capital letter issues: race relations, asylum, drugs, chronic masturbation, and rappers with bad enunciation, but never loses sight of the strong narrative underpinning nor slips into preaching mode.
Before abruptly veering into a skit sending up the kind of loan adverts that fill afternoon television in the UK, Sway attempts to get the DJ at said party to play his best tune. The response is less than impressive: “As soon as he put it on everyone sat down.” This punch line doesn’t call to mind one trick deprecation of a Ske-Lo type joker, but the rueful self mockery of Morrissey’s Queen Is Dead persona.
It is in this rarefied orbit of uniquely British lyricism Sway perhaps unwittingly finds himself. Delivering the kind of subtle state of the nation addresses that British rock forgot after Britpop’s fragile mask ate into its own face Yet Sway, by virtue of his own identity and that his musical language is effectively cut off from the past, is at an incredibly early stage of his career and is already moving beyond this. His is a fluid Britishness, one mired neither in lower case conservatism and Arcadian nonsense nor in alienating London centricism. The two Promos are a tantalizing glimpse of a talent on the verge of either a massive leap forward or a decisive step back for a whole musical strata. Sway is the nearest thing Britain has yet come to a Kanye West or Outkast type figure, someone who can cut through sub genres, whether he will follow their trails into the heart of the commercial and critical mainstream. He’s clearly got the bravado and skill for the challenge. Whether he will succeed where so many others have failed remains to be seen.