In 2015 Kanye West performed his song All Day (which was co-written by Paul McCartney!!) at the BRIT Awards. Behind him were figures in black who made up the UK grime scene. Dan Hancox, in his excellent new book on the genre, notes that there was ‘no way any MC would be invited to perform under their own steam’, so a major star gave them a leg-up.
By the end of 2017, grime artists had been nominated for the Mercury Prize and, in Skepta’s case in 2016, won it. Wiley was named an MBE in the Queen’s New Year Honours list, while his foe Dizzee Rascal had left Miami and settled in Kent. The Boy Better Know crew, including Skepta and JME, headlined the 16,000-capacity O2 Arena in South-East London, mere miles from where Wiley and Dizzee had started their beef in 2003, and Akala, brother of Ms Dynamite, was gaining more plaudits every time he spoke eloquently on the BBC. I bumped into him at the Hay Festival and had a short chat with him. He’ll be an MBE soon too, as will his sister.
The start of 2018 was dominated by another ambassador of grime. Drake’s song God’s Plan was number one until new rules about streaming forced it down the charts after ten weeks. Because NOW 99 does not include the song, it isn’t eligible for inclusion in the NOW Playlist. I have instead chosen a popstar who, like Drake and before him NWA and Snoop Dogg, sold black sounds to white audiences.
It was a tough call. I asked Fraser McAlpine which track he would choose and he sensibly went for IDGAF, the sixth single from Dua Lipa’s debut album, but thanks to a coin toss New Rules went through from NOW 98. When she was profiled in GQ magazine, Dua came across as determined to succeed. IDGAF, as in ‘I don’t give a fig’, is a fun, poppy tune that sounds great on a car stereo or at a party.
Other party bangers populating NOW 99 include These Days, on which enlist three helpers: Macklemore, Jess Glynne and newcomer Dan Caplen. The song kicks off NOW 99 and eventually knocked Drake off the top. Sigala and Paloma Faith’s top 10 hit Lullaby, and Jax Jones, with vocals by the mighty Ina Wroldsen, finds it hard to Breathe. Like Zedd, Jax Jones is growing in my estimation with every radio hit. Likewise Anne-Marie, whose song FRIENDS is a collaboration with Marshmello on which they receive equal billing; the tune is single number five from her album Speak Your Mind.
Old friends return. Taylor Swift, missing with music from 1989, released Reputation in 2017; …Ready For It makes the compilation, while her fellow female Pink had Beautiful Trauma, the second single from the album of the same name, beautifully sung.
Many tracks point to the sound of now. Camila Cabello’s follow-up to Havana is the incredible Never Be The Same, a song whose ‘nicotine’ chorus (or is it the bridge?) goes right up into the top of her range. It sounds like nothing else on the radio. Sigrid’s next single is Strangers, which is also remarkable in structure, melody and lyrics; her talent is scary. Fine Line is by Mabel & Not3s, while My Lover is credited to Not3s X Mabel, proving both that either men or women can come first these days and that Mabel has inherited her mum Neneh Cherry’s ear for a hook.
Raye, who is working with Fraser T Smith on new music, looks back to the Ashanti song Always On Time on her own Decline, another winner and a duet with Mr Eazi, a Nigerian singer. I hope more African stars make their way over to the UK, not just to play for the diaspora here but to work with Western acts.
Peter from Hawaii is dripping in Finesse, with Cardi B singing the opening rap on a remix of an album track that sounds like the best of Jam & Lewis and Teddy Riley crunched into a pop-funk granola. Craig David continues his run of hits with I Know You, a duet with Bastille where his vocals mesh with those of Dan Smith. Jason Derulo enlists French Montana to help him with the tush-shaker Tiptoe, George Ezra brings the ‘love-a, love-a’ hook on Paradise and there are appearances from Paloma Faith (Guilty), Calum Scott (You Are the Reason), Sam Smith (One Last Song, a move into 80s hair metal…nope, it’s a ballad) and James Arthur (Naked). Tom Walker had a top ten hit with Leave a Light On, a cross between Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran, befitting for a track co-written with Steve ‘Shape Of You’ Mac.
Much hoohah was made when Radio X named a Top 100 Song list with 16 Oasis songs – five in the top 10 – but Oasis remain the last great rock band. Arctic Monkeys have a claim, as do Muse, Kasabian and The Libertines, but for durable acts to press themselves upon pop culture, Oasis are really the last ones. As I mentioned in the NOW 33 essay, it was all downhill from Knebworth…
Closing the compilation is catalogue, selected for wretched reasons. After the horrid attacks on Manchester in May 2017, Oasis soundtracked the city’s revival. In an eerie repeat of the choice I faced on NOW 33, Don’t Look Back In Anger was the song that made the biggest mark, but Live Forever remains an important part of their catalogue. Liam Gallagher had taken to performing the song in his live shows to promote his album As You Were; perhaps this is a compromise, as Noel wrote the tune and Liam sang it.
There are now popstars who were barely out of nappies when Oasis were playing to half a million people in Hertfordshire. Many of them make the NOW 99 tracklisting: 5 Seconds of Summer (Want You Back) and Demi Lovato (Tell Me You Love Me). J Hus (Bouff Daddy) was born in May 1996, Ramz (Barking) in February 1997, Khalid (Location) in February 1998. This makes me, at 30, feel ancient.
Dave, a young rapper who won an Ivor Novello Award for Best Song Musically and Lyrically with the seven-minute Question Time, appears on a NOW for the first time, featuring fellow rapper MoStack, with No Words. Other stars talking over beats effectively include NF (Let You Down), B Young (Jumanji), G-Eazy & Halsey (Him & I) and CLiQ ft. Alika (Wavey). Getting very rich very quickly, Post Malone was joined by Ty Dolla $ign on Psycho, while Drake features on the BlocBoy JB song Look Alive, driven by a looped piano but missing a chorus.
Dimelo by Rak-Su, featuring Wyclef Jean and Naughty Boy, was debuted on Saturday night TV: a Watford band with a Watford-based produced and a Fugee, with someone genuine and original. The debut album from the winners of The X Factor 2017 will emerge in 2018, and will build on the success of their hit, which aped the Latin influence of 2017 that Simon Cowell realised could make him some money. I preferred the Havana knock-off Mamacita.
Blinded By Your Grace (Part 2) is an anomaly on NOW 99. Its gospel feel, finger-clicking on the offbeat and massed choir outro helped bring it to the Radio 2 audience: grime had finally reached the middle of the road!
Stormzy had already had exposure on BBC 1Xtra, the urban station, with his freestyle skills and his campaign to get Shut Up to number one over Christmas 2016. In 2017, Gang Signs and Prayer emerged, an album of immaculately produced contemporary British rap songs. He appeared with David Beckham at an event for a sportswear company, made the NME apologise for putting him on the cover without his permission for a piece about mental health and was nominated for the Mercury Prize.
More than that, his BRIT Awards performance of his two big hits (this one and Big For Your Boots) gave him front-page headlines. He called out the Prime Minister on ‘the money for Grenfell’ as water poured down on him, alone at a microphone stand singing along with a choir wearing balaclavas covering their faces. It was broadcast on primetime on terrestrial television and remains one of the decade’s most brilliant performances of its kind. When he kicks into Big for Your Boots, he reminds me of the first time I heard Dizzee Rascal, but without the abrasiveness of Boy In Da Corner.
According to Dan Hancox, grime emerged through its environment, its power coming ‘from transmuting the anxiety, pain and joy of inner-city live into music’. It was a ‘sonically violent enactment of the claustrophobia of the inner city’, with a ‘collective spirit’ keeping the scene together even as it tries to expand beyond small postcodes in London.
Annoyingly live shows were tough to put on thanks to Form 696, where police could shut down an event if it posed a risk to the public; if so, they needed ‘the full names, addresses, telephone numbers and dates of birth for all of the artists and promoters’ or just their passports. It seemed racist, and it was, and the form was finally rendered unnecessary in 2017, just when MPs were pledging allegiance to the grime sound.
Stormzy is Britain’s most important popstar. He represents black youth in a time where, in 2018, sixty kids were murdered 110 days into the year, and in April 2018 the Prime Minister had to apologise to anyone of West Indian descent who was worried they would be deported from the UK due to a lack of paperwork, which the Home Office were alleged to have destroyed ten years ago. Remember how I said in the last essay I have never been ashamed to be British? I am now.
In his freestyle Stormzy referenced Daniel Kaluuya, the lead actor in Get Out, a black horror film that satirised race and privilege. At the same time, actors like John Boyega and broadcasters like Clara Amfo and Julie Adenuga were visible presences in the media and arts. Riz Ahmed, who won a drama scholarship to the secondary school I attended, is one of the most promising young actors in Britain, if not the world; there is a black editor of Vogue magazine in the UK, Edward Enninful, and the model Adwoa Aboah is everywhere in fashion. At long last, and with good reason, black men and women are being allowed (which is a verb I hope doesn’t come off in the wrong way) to succeed. In 2018, however, Lil Dicky can still mine a comic seam with Freaky Friday (not on NOW 99 because it mentions a very rude word), in which a Jewish boy wakes up the body of a black popstar who is still having hits despite hitting Rihanna.
In case you are wondering if Calvin Harris has made it onto a NOW from 2018, he has: The Weekend is a collaboration with SZA. It appears he has had 30 UK top 40 hits, though this track did not chart, a standalone single.
U2 in 2018 seem like an anachronism; they haven’t troubled the UK top 10 since 2007 (their 2009 single Get on your Boots stalled at 12), but they don’t mind so much as their heyday brought them 34 hits, including seven number ones. They remain one of the world’s greatest groups, worth their status alongside The Who and The Rolling Stones as great survivors. You’re The Best Thing About Me sees them return to a NOW and it’s a perfectly fine pop song with guitars.
30 years into her own career, and turning 50 in 2018, Kylie Minogue celebrated a number one album which included the mighty, country-tinged Dancing, with the double-edged hook ‘when I go out I wanna go out dancing’. Some of the album was written by renowned country producer Nathan Chapman. Aside from a run in the late 1990s where Shania Twain emerged, country has never been ‘it’. I am confident it will have its moment in the next five years, and on NOW 99 Florida Georgia Line feature on the pileup, or ‘orgy’, song Let Me Go with Hailee Steinfeld, Alesso and Watt.
Chris Stapleton co-writes and sings Say Something with Justin Timberlake, who released his fourth album Man of the Woods to coincide with his 2018 Superbowl Half-Time Show. Stapleton’s beard is more impressive even than Rory Graham’s, aka Rag’N’Bone Man, whose song As You Are sits between Wild Love, the return of James Bay who famously wore a hat to promote his first album and equally famously didn’t wear a hat to promote his second.
Maroon 5 also linger deep on the second disc, with a tune called Wait written by singer Adam Levine with Ammar Malik (Moves Like Jagger), J Kash (collaborator with Charlie Puth) and John Ryan (most One Direction songs). Maroon 5 used to be rock and now they are pop, which begs the question: is the rock band dead or just lumbering on waiting for an asteroid to hit it?
Maybe the asteroid has ‘Michael Omari, Jr’ on it: the name Stormzy was born with.