A lot has changed in the three years since Skepta dropped Konnichiwa, the hit album that took him from grime scene veteran to global superstar. In 2016, grime’s second wind was reaching a high water mark, with the previously dismissive media establishment rushing to embrace and document a culture they had previously ignored, dismissed, and flat-out insulted. Book deals were signed, festival appearances booked—hell, Wiley even received an MBE! Today however, even as British emceeing reaches new commercial and critical heights, grime once again finds its relevance questioned amidst the rise of younger styles and emcees eager to make their own mark on the world. That sort of pressure is enough to trip up just about any veteran artist, but leave it to Skepta to navigate these challenges with ease on Ignorance Is Bliss, perhaps his most personal and self-assured album yet.
Sonically, Skep walks a tightrope across the album, neither serving up comfort food for true believers nor abandoning grime altogether. Instead, tracks like “Bullet from A Gun”, “Greaze Mode”, “Redrum” and “You Wish” lean into grime’s strangest, more interesting sonic identifiers, like eerie squarewave synth lines and pentatonic melodies, merging them to trap and drill-leaning drums. Elsewhere, he performs the same trick on “Love Me”’s 2-step beat to brilliant effect before only just hinting at Afrobeats on the Wizkid featuring “Glow In The Dark”. This reverence for the spirit of classic grime anchors the album without weighing it down, and this results in a brilliantly cohesive project that nevertheless offers up variety.
It never feels like Skepta’s ticking off boxes with these tracks, 12 of which he produced himself, as he approaches the set like a mad scientist seeking new ways to adapt high-intensity spitting to 2019. This subtle approach to the grime sound accompanies a new lyrical outlook: cautious, reflective and otherwise removed from the chest-beating pirate radio flexes that Konnichiwa celebrated and sought to revive. While there’s no obvious anthem in the vein of “Shutdown” or “That’s Not Me”—the BBK-assisted “Gangsta” comes close—Ignorance Is Bliss instead goes for sophistication and maturity, and is all the better for it, rewarding repeat listens.
Skepta hasn’t exactly sought out the spotlight over the past three years, and Ignorance Is Bliss sees him reflecting on wise words from his parents and his distrust of authority to get through the storm that was his elevation to celebrity status. Frankly, this shouldn’t work: a decade after Drake made winging over fame a hot songwriting topic, music fans have all but run out of tears for the trials of the rich and famous. It’s to Skepta’s credit that he never sounds disconnected from everyday life—he’s simply too smart, at age 36, to get caught up in situations that could jeopardize his bright future. There’s a tension to Ignorance Is Bliss, the sense that after the raves, the riots, the votes, the album releases, that everything’s changed; yet nothing really has, for both Skepta and his home city of London. And so Skepta spends the majority of the album surveying his kingdom, (eye)-spying those who want his crown, but also giving advice to the next generation who’d seek to go even further.
Is it a perfect album? Not quite. The J Hus assisted “What Do You Mean” suffers from production that sounds like something rapper 50 Cent would’ve turned down in 2004, complete with Young Buck shout-out. Key!’s guest verse on “Redrum” meanwhile, seems to serve no purpose beyond making sure there’s an American accent somewhere on the set. And though it seems silly to get upset over Auto-Tune usage in 2019, the hardest of the hardcore will probably object to a few of the album’s hooks, even as they get the rest of us on the floor.
Ignorance is Bliss is mostly a triumph, a confident, experimental album that proves that grime emcees need not choose between forever reliving their pirate radio glory days and abandoning their roots. Instead, by digging deep both sonically and lyrically, Skepta has once again expanded the genre’s parameters, all while making it look easy.