This is absolutely Skepta’s year – and winning the Mercury is just one positive element in this development. The voice of a generation of Londoners facing both police intimidation and the forced closure of many of London’s cultural party venues – it’s back to the laptop to recharge for the majority of the UK Grime scene. Yet, instead of facing obscurity, a possible renaissance of Grime can almost be anticipated by the media frenzy now surrounding this Tottenham MC, who in the aftermath of the riots gives UK youth something to strive for.
Saying this, the Mercury Prize has long often been a baffling source of judges ‘ decision making, with carer high albums from the likes of Blur, Tricky, Radiohead, Richard Hawley and Bat For Lashes being overlooked by efforts from, em, M People, Franz Ferdinand and Talvin Singh, anyone? So, to ensure you don’t feel hoodwinked by the nominees, here is a rundown from the most exciting, innovative and challenging music this year’s Mercury list has to offer:
The Comet is Coming – Space Carnival
London psychedelic folk trio The Comet Is Coming take ’70s style acid jazz fusion and synth it up for the Fabric (R.I.P) generation. Mercury nominated album Channel The Spirits sounds like a combination of clubbing nights out when the whole room just lifts-the fact that this a result of live musicianship points the way to a bright future for a London Dance-Jazz scene, particularly seeing as many of the pivotal dance venues are being shut down.
Kano – This is England
“I’m from where Reggie Kray got rich as fuck” Kano announces at the start of “This is England”, straight away asserting a comparison between his life grafting a career in Grime versus the crime story so easily affiliated with what he dubs “The Manor” – London’s old east end. His anthem for youth trying to prosper while sticking on the straight and narrow, portraying himself as “pac in a town full o’ suges”, is a track that celebrates the social characteristics of the urban Southern English experience in the 21st century, one that often portrayed by a cynical media spin but one which Kano attempts to convey with humour and dignity on his triumphant Made In The Manor.
Bat For Lashes – Sunday Love
A life of domesticity may not be the hipster ideal in 2016-but it’s this very disarming image of dedication to a cause that shapes The Bride, Natasha Khan’s concept album of full monogamous abandon. Like PJ Harvey did with her 201 winner Let England Shake, the Mercury judges put stock on a female artist’s attempt to frame a musical narrative around a single idea: in this case Khan’s frames the question of “does society turn away from a woman who is above all hopelessly in love?” over 12 soaring, achingly haunting tracks.
Jamie Woon – Sharpness
Previously recognised for his collaborations with Burial and his acclaimed 2013 single “Night Air”, Jamie Woon returned in 2016 with Making Time, a soulful journey into smooth electro-funk. As full with atmospheric sonic experiments as it is with pure hooks, Making Time presents Swoon as a neo-soul writer/producer as comfortable on a crowded stage of musicians he is honing signature atmospherics in a studio. Sharpness probably won’t the radio hit it by rights should be, but the exposure the Mercury could lend the album might help in fostering this unique, genre-bending artist.
David Bowie – Girl Loves Me
The most reassuring aspect of the chronology of the release of David Bowie’s Blackstar was that music chameleon’s had lost none of his awe-inducing edge in the face of serious illness. Probably the starkest track lyrically and sonic on the album-“Girl Loves Me” is a searing reflection on the effects personal decline has on memory and attempts to make sense of life. A moody undercurrent of Wagnerian classic strings and daunting drum’n’bass create an urban landscape that the ailing have trouble relating to, but must exist within. A conflict captured perfectly in this devastating, unforgettable song.
Skepta – Shutdown
“They tried to steal my vision/ this is not a culture/ this is my religion” Skepta took a fact of urban cultural life in 2016’s London, the shutdown of venues and social gatherings by authorities, and reapplied it to describe the merits of his own work, literally shutting down his competition. In an era when even media outlets purporting to reflect the edgy and innovative (ahem, Mercury Prize committee) ceased to promote real developments in musical culture, Skepta with Konnichiwa brought Grime back from being the biggest joke in the British musical press to its rightful place at the top of the que for showing the way forward for British musical culture. You can’t shutdown artistry with this kind of momentum, particularly one that has Skepta’s blatant strive for reinvention as its forefront.