First Impressions Of Central Cee’s New Project ‘23’

Our review is in.

central cee 23 mixtape review
Image via Publicist
central cee 23 mixtape review

Less than a year on from Wild West and Central Cee has already delivered its follow-up, 23.

Few artists sum up the TikTok age quite like Cench: his tracks always do massive numbers on the platform, thanks to clever (and occasionally controversial) use of samples, highly quotable lyrics, and jumpy instrumentals that lend themselves well to viral dances. 

The rapper’s sophomore mixtape has only been out a few days, but it’s already proving immensely popular. Pre-release single “Obsessed With You” sits on over 100m streams on Spotify, and others such as “Retail Therapy” and “Cold Shoulder” sit at just shy of 15m and 9m, respectively. However, he’s not without his critics and there’s a growing number who question his use of samples. 

Some of Complex UK’s music team—Joseph ‘JP’ Patterson, James Keith, and Aaron Bishop—sat down and dissected Central Cee’s latest project. Read on after the jump.

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Best song?

JP: Something about the reflective “Ungrateful” gives me Kano circa 2016 vibes, which can only be a good thing. Central Cee has said in almost every interview that he grew up on grime—citing the likes of Skepta, Chip and Jme as early influences—and here it shows, albeit subtly. From producer Levi Lennox’s synth work to the way Cench sits on the beat, there’s a sprinkling of grime essence in the mix and that’s always a win in my book. 

James: “End Of The Beginning”. One of the tape’s winning traits is the vulnerability he shows and he pulls it off best on the tape’s closer. Santan Dave was drafted in as executive producer, and it shows. You could possibly argue it sounds a little too close to a Dave track—melancholic pianos and all—but it fits perfectly and it draws out Central Cee’s more thoughtful side with care. There’s been a lot of talk lately of the pervasiveness of samples in drill and Cench’s name comes up a lot, but this just goes to show he really doesn’t need to use those shortcuts to success, however fun they may be in that exact moment. A sound rebuke to critics and naysayers.

Aaron: For me, “Cold Shoulder” is an early standout. Flowing like a stream of consciousness, the rapper pivots effortlessly between multiple subjects and dials down on the bravado, opening up and allowing himself to be super vulnerable. Still staying true to his drill sound, it’s a welcome change from the violence and aggression that is often associated with the genre. He speaks on his responsibility as a public figure as well as being the head of his family, while also talking about how far he’s come in his career and the possibility of becoming a father. This comes amongst stories from his past and his hopes for the future. It’s all constructed really well as he floats over sombre production from in-house producer Young Chencs—who produced the majority of the tape. There are more instances of this side of Cench throughout the project, but for me, this is the most complete iteration of it and is one of the songs that I’ve found myself coming back to the most.

Biggest skip?

JP: “Eurovision”. I’m all for an EU drill link-up but this was a bit all over the place.

James: To Central Cee’s credit, there aren’t many skips on 23. A couple of tracks in the first half—namely “Ungrateful” and “Bunda”—fall a little flat and give the tape some slight pacing issues, but they aren’t terrible by any stretch. The only major misstep comes at the midway point with “Mrs”. This one just didn’t quite work. It felt as if he was trying to tap into the R&Drill sound that has been gathering pace lately, but it just doesn’t sound like his heart’s in it.

Aaron: This song isn’t exactly bad, but when compared to the rest of 23, I think the biggest skip is probably “Bunda”. It’s just a bit flat. There are a couple of cool lines, but, overall, I don’t think the tape would lose anything if it was removed from the tracklist. The vibe of the song is something we’ve heard before from Cench and is something he’s proven he can execute to a higher standard than this one.

Best thing about the project?

JP: His chemistry with producer Young Chencs. The Kettering-based beatsmith has produced a chunk of Cench’s hits—including “6 For 6” and “Gangbiz”—and this winning formula has carried over into 23 with him producing 9 of the project’s 15 tracks. Chencs is a dab-hand at taking drill’s basics and creating new listening experiences with his riddims, and his work is clearly a hit with the masses. “Working with Cench is always enjoyable,” he tells Complex. “As a producer, not many artists from the jump will give you the creative freedom to do what you want, but he has always given me that—and I’ve always known what he likes. All of that combined is part of the reason why we work so well together. Working on 23 was really one of the best musical experiences of my career so far. I love going somewhere reclusive and working on music, and for the last camp we did just that and stayed on a farm—the perfect vibe to see out the project.”

James: Introspection. 23 is stuffed with more than its share of bangers and Central Cee could have quite easily rattled them off with big hooks, thrown in the buzzwords and called it a day. He could’ve even made 15 “Khabib”-style tracks and they would’ve stood as a rock-solid entries and probably picked up some points for not relying on samples. But, to his credit, he really has gone to a lot of effort to improve as a writer and tell some stories. Even “Cold Shoulder”, an early hit that had to contend with being the follow-up to “Obsessed With You”, told us about nights spent sleeping on people’s couches, regrets he has about an old flame he mistreated, and a self-awareness you don’t often see.

Aaron: The best thing about 23 is probably the growth of Central Cee as an artist. The project includes the more commercial tracks that have TikTok in a chokehold (“Obsessed With You”, “Retail Therapy”), the more street-aimed anthems (“Khabib”, “8 Ball”) and songs where he opens up about his life and shows more depth (“Ungrateful”, “Lil Bro”). This all comes alongside his A1 marketing campaign with the colour yellow, fan art competitions, and more. Cench understands his fanbase and what they want, and also knows what he wants to achieve and where he wants to go as an artist. The project is a cohesive body of work that builds on themes and ideas from his debut, while expertly positioning himself to be the next face of UK rap following on from J Hus, Stormzy and Dave (who exec-produced “End Of The Beginning”).

Worst thing about the project?

JP: It’s not the worst thing, but aside from “Ungrateful” and “End Of The Beginning”, his rhyme schemes are pretty much the same on every song. I get it: he’s stuck to the typical drill format by chopping up the beat, but I would personally like to see Cench switch up his flow and cadence a little bit more. He’s already shown us that his pen game’s supreme, and that he can pattern up any beat that he’s on, but now is the time to show his versatility. That angst-ridden drill flow of his has worked well for him so far, but as he grows as a rapper—which he hopes to do and not be boxed in as a drill rapper—it wouldn’t hurt, especially with a load of drill hits under his belt, to start trying out some new styles now.

James: There’s nothing on this tape you could really call ‘bad’, but it all feels a little safe. He’s cracked the formula; he knows which producers to work with and what to ask of them. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s calculated—after all, you can’t fault someone for being good at what they do—but it does feel just a little sanitised. Word has it that 23 was recorded entirely in the space of a month, and while there’s a ruthless efficiency that you can’t help but applaud, had Cench taken a bit more time, experimented with different flows, different producers, and really let the tape grow and evolve, he could have taken this to somewhere even more exciting. 

Aaron: The worst thing about this set is probably the runtime of some of the tracks. “Terminal 5”, “Bunda”, “No Pain” and “Obsessed With You” are all under 2 minutes in length, and could have perhaps been fleshed out a little bit more or even included a feature to bring a different dynamic. Considering he recorded the whole thing in August 2021, there was plenty of time to build more on these or swap some of them out in exchange for a more rounded song altogether. At times, it feels like just as he’s getting into the meat and bones of the song, it ends. But seeing as 23 is billed as a mixtape, it’s not necessarily something that detracts from the overall quality of the project—just simply an observation.

Best guest feature?

JP: Lil Bro. Never heard of the kid before now, but the conversation that’s had between the pair on the track “Lil Bro” is both hard-hitting and super-necessary. One of 23’s highlights.

James: There are only two tracks on 23 that actually have features, so there isn’t much to choose from. “Eurovision” deserves praise simply because we’ll never tire of seeing artists connect with other grassroots scenes. The cynics out there might argue that it was to lay the groundwork of a European tour, but so what if it was? That said, “Lil Bro”, a track featuring newcomer Lil Bro, feels like the perfect summation of the tenderness and vulnerability that gives this mixtape much of its appeal. Bangers and TikTok fuel are all well and good, but when the dust settles, it’s tracks like these that will stand the test of time. 

Aaron: I was going to say “Eurovision”, with its array of European artists strengthening his position across the continent, but there was something special about the track “Lil Bro”, assisted by Lil Bro. With the clever writing and its conversational format, it serves as a cautionary tale as he tries to steer his brother away from the life of crime he experienced himself at one point in time. But it works, as the mere fact he’s talking to his younger sibling makes what he’s saying hit that much harder. When Central Cee is on form, his penmanship really is top tier and this is one example of that.

Overall first impressions?

JP: Probably the best drill set both you and I will hear this year. 8/10.

James: It’s solid. He knows his sound and he knows how to make a hit. “Cold Shoulder”, “Khabib” and “Obsessed With You” have already scored big, both in the charts and on TikTok, and there’s probably a couple more on there capable of doing just as much damage. He’s put a lot of thought into the project and it shows. Save for a couple of slightly flat tracks in the first half, the tape’s paced pretty much perfectly and hits all the notes it should. Although I’ve just criticised 23 for being too safe, Central Cee deserves a lot of credit for still finding moments to go a bit deeper within himself. “Cold Shoulder”, as much as it’s a well-aimed depth charge for TikTok, saw him get quite vulnerable, likewise on “End Of The Beginning”, which brought in Dave as executive producer. The production felt bigger, more ambitious and more imaginative, which is what we want to see more of.

Aaron: For the fans of Central Cee that caught the wave of hype following his critically-acclaimed, chart-dominating Wild West tape last year, his latest outing will not disappoint. The first half of 23 is filled with the catchy drill sound (and flow) of which his come-up routinely consisted of, but having thus far presented himself as a mysterious character, Cench reveals more about the man behind the music throughout the 15 tracks. From how his life has both changed and stayed the same in various ways, and the new challenges he faces in and amongst the trappings of fame, 23 is a solid successor to his previous work and proves that the achievements he’s accumulated over the past two years are only just the start.

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