Poulomi Basu/The New York Times

March 22, 2023

Slowthai’s ‘UGLY’ Is Anything But

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On March 3, after a two-year wait, British rapper Slowthai finally released his third studio album UGLY, the successor to 2021’s Tyron. With its raw, introspective content and meshing of hip hop with a punk-focused sound, UGLY checks all the boxes for a hard-hitting, genre-bending record that will undoubtedly and deservedly draw critical acclaim for its ambition and emotionality.

By the time Tyron dropped in early 2021, I had only vaguely heard of Slowthai from rumblings that had started from his debut album Nothing Great About Britain. That project was highly regarded right off the bat, so Tyron had a fair amount of hype behind it, which I would say it lived up to. Throughout its runtime, Tyron fairly consistently stays in the mold of a conventional, trap-influenced project, but this element of mainstream conformity doesn’t take away from it being a high-quality album. On the other hand, UGLY does not stay close to modern hip hop at all and instead ventures directly into its punk influence right off the bat with its thumping intro “Yum,” immediately notifying listeners that they’re about to hear a major pivot from Tyron.

And this pivot is definitely successful, for the most part. UGLY starts off strong and never notably compromises its quality for its duration. Its songwriting mostly consists of verses delivered through a bouncy rapping style that grips the tempo of each song well, which is incredibly effective on top of the album’s guitar-driven, emotive production. The hooks are either softly sung or more intensely rapped, while relying heavily on repetition. But the album’s most potent aspect is Slowthai’s vocals themselves: He is so good at channeling his sadness and frustration into his delivery, which often passes a breaking point into full-blown screams of anguish.

These emotionally charged vocals go hand in hand with a lyrical content built around understanding depressive feelings and social struggles. “Selfish” deals with coming to terms with putting oneself first and generating healthy self-esteem. “Fuck It Puppet” is a visceral outpouring about shoving aside destructive inner voices. And “Falling” highlights the fear that accompanies increased detachment with the world around oneself, with Slowthai gradually intensifying the plaintive outcry of his lyrics over a beautiful instrumental.

I would identify the heart of the album as the one-two punch of “HAPPY” and “UGLY.” The former is a light-hearted banger that stands out due to its appearance as a positive moment on an otherwise fairly dark album. The chorus has an attitude and energy that fit right in with the punk aesthetic, and the whole song has a catchy, higher-pitched backing vocal that feels like a hype man supporting the centerpiece of Slowthai’s main vocal. Immediately following “HAPPY” is the title track, which feels so cinematic and important with its swelling production. I’m a big fan of Slowthai’s verses on this track, which feel vulnerable yet assertive with how he confidently lays down his views on the ugliness of the society around him. These two songs are definitely the album’s climax and double as two of the best of Slowthai’s career.

I could talk about this album for another few pages: It’s grown on me a ton just from the process of writing this review. If I had to mention any weaknesses, I would probably point to the first half being noticeably less engaging than the second, due mainly to a few songs not being too memorable. Overall though, I love the direction of genre fusion that Slowthai has decided to go in and that has been surprisingly present in some high-profile hip hop releases this year, with Lil Yachty’s January release Let’s Start Here coming to mind. Rappers who are willing to take a leap and push the fold are at the forefront of what hip hop can become, and with the release of UGLY, Slowthai has taken his place as both a pioneer of the genre and one of its heavy hitters.

Nihar Hegde is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].