slowthai Shifts Negatives into Positives in His Third LP 'Ugly' [Album Review]

Ben Higgins

The world was blessed with a new slowthai album last week. The breakout artist from Northampton, England exploded into the British rap scene with his debut album Nothing Great About Britain in 2019. Consistently praised for his ability to fuse the earliest influences of grime and post punk, slowthai has taken the latter genre to the next level in his latest record, and it is paying dividends artistically. 

Ugly, slowthai’s third LP, is all about utilizing negative experiences and emotions to strengthen who you are. The title is an acronym: “U Gotta Love Yourself,” and thai seeks to generate internal positivity through terms that are normally coined as insults, such as ugly and selfish. As he said in an interview with Rolling Stone UK, “Ugly tends to be such a negative word. But to me, I think it’s actually more beautiful because it’s against the norm. Selfish is a similar thing. If you’re selfish, and you do everything for yourself, that’s a negative. But how can you do anything for anyone else without putting yourself first?” The progression of the album is a vulnerable introspective display of slowthai’s ups and downs and how he copes with hardship. Gritty, honest, and powerful – I believe this is his best creation to date. 

The record opens up with the chaotic industrial hip-hop track “Yum.” slowthai immediately immerses the audience into his erratic lifestyle in an indulgent cry for help. The track takes you on a journey through his self-affirmations, his attempt to try therapy, to drug-riddled benders, begging for an intervention, and ends with an aloof “excuse me while I self destruct, cause I don’t give a f*ck.” 

The album then progresses into the tough post punk sound that is consistent through the project with “Selfish,” and “Sooner.” slowthai does a deep dive into the term that titles the former track, as he highlights the difference in motivation between those who try to climb the pyramid and himself as he raises his son. “Sooner,” features his singing voice taking more prominence, a trend he has leaned into as of late. Both tracks are filled with guitars, analog drums, and distorted synths, since much of the new record features production from Dan Carey, a producer for punk groups such as Fontaines D.C. and Wet Leg.

Next up is “Feel Good,” a remarkably positive tune that was initially released as a single back in the first week of February. “Feel Good” was accompanied by one of the most wholesome music videos I’ve ever seen. In the video, slowthai’s team reached out to some of his biggest fans and asked to film their live reaction to hearing the song the first time, not knowing that slowthai was waiting in the hallway. He bursts in half way through the song, creating smiles and a warmth that embodies slowthai’s desire to make others happy. 

The album slows down for an incredibly haunting display of story-telling in the grim “Never Again.” The meaning of this track can be best described by slowthai himself, in a song breakdown for NME:

This is my council estate version of ‘Maria’ from West Side Story. Boy meets girl, breaks up with girl, grows up, goes about his life and follows his dreams. He comes back to town, girl’s moved on with her life, married a cunt, the cunt and her have had babies. The guy would love to save her, but can’t because he’s focused on his own ambitions. While he’s back he’s catching up with everyone and then has a realisation, wishes he’d done more for the person but he didn’t because he was being selfish. Therefore she ends up dying at the hands of this merciless, horrible man who should’ve stayed locked away. Then it’s a moment of reflection of if you’d actually done more and hadn’t been so selfish, you might have been able to help. But then it’s also a reflection that you can’t save everyone without first saving yourself. That’s where the title comes from: the story’s ended, she’s dead and you’re on your knees reflecting on memories you both had.

What proceeds is one of the best three track runs in an album I can think of in recent memory, with “F*ck It Puppet,” to “Happy,” to the title track “UGLY.” The first of the three, “F*ck it Puppet” is an open dialogue between himself and the voice in his head, which encourages him to descend into drugs and alcohol to cope with mental health. In “Happy,” slowthai continues to thrive in the punk sound, as he dives into his pursuit of finding happiness and his best attempts to evade the mental struggle he finds beauty in the ugly, in a sound that feels dark and damaged. Edgy and distorted, “UGLY,” is a poetic introscope into slowthai’s mind. 

The album finishes on a tamer note with the final four tracks. In “Falling,” slowthai reaches out to his audience and begs the answer, “Do you ever feel like you're falling? Do you ever feel like you’re drifting away?” “Wotz Funny,” brings a final homage to the fast-paced post punk sound on the album before turning to a mellow album ending. The LP reaches the vulnerable “Tourniquet,” which features jazzier and psychedelic undertones, diverged by slowthai’s manic and passionate vocal delivery. The contrast in the song's calm nature with thai’s desperate outcries leaves the sense that his mental health battles are far from over. Finally, we arrive at the closing track, “25% club.” The most laxed track on the album, slowthai trades in the punk and hip-hop influences of the album for a folky acoustic-guitar based outro. He concludes the project with the general question of what is supposed to make someone truly feel happy? A feeling that often evades many through life, to slowthai, we are constantly feeling at 75% of our capacity, trying to find that last 25% to reach satisfaction. 

Overall, this album is a stunning work. slowthai’s embodiment of trying to balance the good and the bad, the healthy and depraved, and motivation and depression creates an accurate depiction of his struggles in life through a beautiful work of music. Deeply relatable, thoughtful, and intentional, the album’s journey is a magnificent exploration of the vast effort that it takes to improve the way you view yourself, and the way you interact with the world around you. Although it’s only March, Ugly is currently my album of the year, and slowthai’s journey is one I will continue to watch with excitement.

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