Stormzy, Skepta, and the Race for Grime to Break Out in the U.S.
It’s been a while since rap went global, but depending on where you are in the world it can still sound very different. In the UK the dominant style of rap is “grime,” and even though it’s been one of the biggest subgenres of rap for over a decade, it’s entirely independent from what Americans know as hip-hop. If American hip-hop artists often compare themselves to basketball players, grime artists are more like bare-knuckle boxers. The genre can be recognized rhythmically by its signature tempo of 140 beats per minute and frequent double-time rapping, and aesthetically by its low rumbling bass lines and pseudo-electronic timbre. Grime has commanded respect as a standalone genre for a while now—early pioneer Dizzee Rascal’s 2003 debut Boy in da Corner is considered one of the top 20 most critically acclaimed albums of the past several decades by music critic aggregator Metacritic. And yet for some reason not a single grime artist has successfully crossed over into the American market.
For years in the grime community there have been wide-eyed prophecies about an artist who will one day bring the genre over to the United States, and currently emcees Stormzy and Skepta are each exhibiting signs that they could be the chosen one. Even some American hip-hop heads are starting to herald their coming despite the fact that both men are still virtually anonymous outside of the UK. Hot 97’s Peter Rosenberg—one of the most knowledgeable figures in U.S. hip-hop radio—was recently asked if he thought a grime artist could make the leap across the Atlantic. His response: “I think it’s going to happen. It’s going to take someone like [Stormzy] or Skepta that just has that right record.”
Skepta is definitely the veteran of the two. After making a name for himself as a DJ, he began emceeing around 2005 when he founded the grime label Boy Better Know with his brother and fellow emcee JME. Today, Boy Better Know is arguably the biggest grime label in existence, boasting a roster of newer artists as well as some of the founding fathers of grime. But there’s one brand new signee to the label who turned a lot of heads internationally—Drake, America’s beloved mononymous rap prince. Drake signed to Skepta’s label in 2016 and has been promoting the grime emcee’s music quite a bit lately; he even made a surprise appearance at one of Skepta’s UK shows, which immediately put Skepta on the map as having massive international pull since most American rappers don’t even know grime exists.
Skepta’s music is reminiscent of the 2000’s rap sound that he came up in. His brand of grime is approachable, places a heavy emphasis on hooks, and is lyrically reminiscent of lots of the club hip-hop of the last decade. Whichever grime artist makes it big in America will most likely need to do it on the back of a hit record, and Skepta knows how to make a hit. His smash single “Shutdown” has over 15 million views on YouTube. There are rumors of a “Shutdown” remix locked in a vault somewhere with a feature from Drake. And if a Drake feature on an established grime hit isn’t enough to make Skepta blow up stateside, don’t worry—he’s hedging his bets. His upcoming fourth studio album is confirmed to feature a collaboration with America’s darling hitmaker Pharrell. A Pharrell beat would not only suit Skepta’s 2000s club sound well, but it might be the celebrity bump necessary to make him an international radio fixture. Skepta clearly thinks so. He’s got a full American tour booked for the upcoming weeks and months, including a crucial performance at this weekend’s Coachella music festival.
Skepta definitely has a head start compared to Stormzy, who’s a relative underdog in the grime scene. Nowadays Stormzy is a big deal in the UK, but by the time he began to make a name for himself Skepta’s label Boy Better Know had already been a grime fixture for half a decade. Skepta’s fourth studio album is due out next month; Stormzy hasn’t even released a studio debut yet. But recently he’s become a favorite to make the continental leap, getting increasing hype from other grime artists. If Skepta’s mogul-like rollout of radio hits is comparable to Drake’s takeover, then Stormzy’s sudden rise is reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar’s climb to the top, propelled by sheer talent more than a knack for making radio hits.
Stormzy’s biggest hit, “Shut Up,” has garnered almost 30 million views on YouTube—nearly double the views for Skepta’s “Shutdown,” and in less the time. The song sets Stormzy apart from Skepta. Not only is the beat softer and more melodic than the traditional weighty grime bass of "Shutdown," but on "Shut Up" Stormzy raps nonstop for 90 bars without a single chorus or refrain (meanwhile Skepta's hit is largely driven by its catchy hook). Stormzy has also been rubbing elbows with some important figures in the stateside hip-hop scene. He had a long conversation with Peter Rosenberg about the differences between grime and hip-hop and the potential for a grime artist to make it big in the US. He also freestyled with Kevin Hart and Ice Cube as part of a promotion for their movie Ride Along. Stormzy was even endorsed by the quintessential UK-musician-gone-global when Adele unexpectedly shouted him out at one of her shows and dedicated a song to him claiming that she was a "big fan" of his music.
A case can be made for either emcee to be grime’s first crossover success, but in reality there’s a good chance it won’t be either one. Breaking out in America has been notoriously difficult for even the most promising grime artists, and these two are far from the first to be in this position. Grime pioneer Kano had many of the same things going for him that these men do. Kano’s critically acclaimed debut album generated hype around his potential to be a crossover success. As an emcee he combines the technical prowess of an early 2000s Eminem with the air of respect and reverence that present-day Jay Z commands. At one point Jay Z actually publicly endorsed Kano, much like how Drake is currently endorsing Skepta. Kano was even given a platform by the internationally successful UK group Gorillaz: they featured him on their song “White Flag,” and frequently brought him on stage to perform at live shows. And even though Kano is still grime royalty in the UK, his window of opportunity to blow up in the United States came and went.
Stormzy shares similarities with Kano: both men can rap with finesse; both are comfortable on gentler beats that blur the boundaries between grime and American hip-hop. Skepta, however, seems like he’ll be the one to finally become a staple in the American market. Stormzy is arguably the better rapper, but at the moment Skepta has more star power propelling him forward. Sure, a Jay Z cosign didn’t work for Kano, but Skepta’s celebrity endorsements are much less noncommittal: Drake actually signed to Skepta’s label, appeared at his show, and possibly recorded a remix of “Shutdown.” Pharrell has a confirmed feature on Skepta’s upcoming fourth studio album.
Stormzy’s music might be just as popular as Skepta’s right now, but Skepta’s hook-heavy style is more suited for the American club scene—and the club scene will probably play a crucial roll in determining whether a grime artist can gain any traction. Recently I went to a Brooklyn show by talented new grime artist Little Simz. While her DJ was warming up the crowd, he played both “Shut Up” and “Shutdown,” and although both records got a positive reaction, Skepta’s was the one that had people singing along—not because Stormzy’s song is less catchy, but because it literally doesn’t have a hook to sing along to. When it comes to making a breakout single, Skepta is catering his music towards the masses while Stormzy is carving out his own lane. Couple that with the fact that Skepta’s accent is much more understandable than Stormzy’s to a casual American listener, and it seems clear who the breakout success will be.
However, nothing is set in stone. Until recently I would have bet all my money on Skepta blowing up, but just this weekend he was denied entry into the United States indefinitely because authorities have refused to grant him a work visa. It’s unclear at this time whether this will be straightened out quickly or not, but irreparable damage could already have been done. As a result of the denied work visa, Skepta had to cancel his set at Coachella this weekend, which could have been a decisive turning point in his career. If we’ve learned anything from Kano, it’s that the opportunity to cross over doesn’t last forever. I’ll reserve my judgment of whether Skepta’s chance has passed until his upcoming album is released—if the visa is granted soon and the album generates a hit record (perhaps the mysterious Pharrell feature), then the odds are stacked in his favor. But plenty can still go wrong for Skepta. If this album doesn’t produce the magic hit record, or if he’s barred from touring in the states, then he might miss his last opportunity, and that would leave the door wide open for Stormzy.