“It’s the same old shit,” Slowthai smirks at the end of his new single “nhs.” Is it though? The rapper and the world aged a lot in 2020. His 2019 debut album Nothing Great About Britain earned critical acclaim with NME naming him “Hero of the Year,” an award he spoiled by making lewd comments toward Katherine Ryan as she presented the award. Slowthai was thrown off stage after boos and lobs of drinks came from the audience. He since issued an apology but there is no “same old shit” for Slowthai. His career is at a crossroads, and “nhs” reminds of possibility and peril on the heels of his sophomore attempt, TYRON.
“nhs” is an atypical Slowthai song. Producers Kevin Krash, SAMO, and Kwes Darko (Slowthai’s longtime collaborator) center it around a poppy and eerie chorus. A guitar line with heavy reverb brings a lulling melody, followed by a whistle sample. Slowthai’s crisp, pitched up, vocoder hook creates a chilling horror film element. The lyrics affirm his youth but betray the juvenile innocence implied. NGAB was a whirlwind of punk-inspired percussion and discordant instrumentation. It is jarring in its own way, though: Slowthai makes an unexpected move toward maturity. To some, it might feel like a betrayal of Slowthai’s edgy debut. But for those who felt Slowthai’s rapping road the coattails of NGAB’s excellent, heavy-handed production, “nhs” proves he can handle his own in more pared-down, catchier instrumentals.
Like other rappers who project immaturity (Chance the Rapper, Tyler the Creator, Vince Staples) Slowthai’s cartoonish performance reveals inequality and structural violence through shattered innocence. Even if that critique comes through less demanding beats, it still functions with a poppier sound. That said, the constant rhetorical questioning feels desperate in its search for depth. (Slowthai doesn’t help himself by comparing his music to the National Health Service in terms of healing potential.) Still, the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated pairs shows an adolescent's search for meaning in an unfathomable world. Slowthai’s retreat to nostalgia suits his juvenile visage and expands his horizons. If he can avoid empty attempts at profundity, then TYRON (scheduled for a February 5th, 2021 release) can show the greater range and a powerful turn of discontent at the outside within.