By 2019, Black British culture was growing in stature as an international export.
Our music scene was thriving, aided by a newfound confidence in our artists to maximise their potential, no matter who was watching, and a growing set of actors were making their presence felt in box offices across the globe. Suddenly, the world was intrigued by our ways of life and the detail that lay within them. So much so that the biggest music star around, Drake, felt compelled to tap into and revive the gritty hood drama Top Boy, dormant since its conclusion six years prior. This move would have many more eyes on what us Brits had to say.
With the stars perfectly aligning, the music of Top Boy had to reflect the depth and breadth of what was now a burgeoning scene. Needless to say, the Brits showed out on the series’ official soundtrack. Released in 2019 on Drake’s own label, OVO Sound (in conjunction with Warner Records), the playlist features many at the table of Black British music royalty: legends like Giggs and Ghetts, veterans like Youngs Teflon, Little Simz and Fredo, and young bucks like Dave, Headie One, AJ Tracey, SL, Nafe Smallz, M Huncho, Avelino and Teeway. Even a cheeky Drizzy entry—his 2019 Behind Barz freestyle for Link Up TV—is included here, a smart nod to his affiliation with the UK. With these names, the spectrum of Black British music is covered, from grime to drill to trapwave, but funnelled into the harsh environment of Summerhouse that Top Boy projects.
“The soundtrack deftly accentuates all emotional aspects of road life: the thrill of having supreme status, generating income by any means, feared and revered in your neighbourhood as rivals vie for your spot and inflicting retribution on any who dare to dream of discarding you.”
A milieu that falls around you like the four walls of a prison cell with the soundtrack’s first offering, Nafe Smallz’s “Smokin On E” is an adrenaline-inducing summation of living on the edge in a city that favours the brave—where being gang is the rule, not the exception, and necessary action is taken to preserve your status on the roads. Following up is Fredo, who basks in the glory of being on top on “Freddy”, a cinematic trance of a track that offers polish and a ‘we made it’ motif amidst the grit of the West London native’s performance. Bringing us back to the grimy reality of that life is one of UK drill’s finest, Headie One—who, on “Hard To Believe”, presents increasingly precarious results of leading a life of crime, asking the listener if they could handle each one. With a sinister drill instrumental embedded under his sermons, Headie portrays, with voluminous detail, the plight of leading a life you may not be built for but grow accustomed to in order to survive.
The soundtrack deftly accentuates all emotional aspects of road life: the thrill of having supreme status, generating income by any means, feared and revered in your neighbourhood as rivals vie for your spot and inflicting retribution on any who dare to dream of discarding you. The joyride of hood infamy brought about through illicit means. “My Town”, featuring The Landlord, Giggs, and Canadian rapper Baka Not Nice, traces these themes with typical defiance, imploring the opps to try a man and meet the consequences of encroaching on his turf. Meanwhile, M Huncho’s “One Summer” is hazy in its feel, as the masked marauder paints yet more pictures of success on the roads, perfectly summarised by a sound clip of Top Boy’s lead protagonist and kingpin Dushane boasting: “Man’s winning out here.”
Then there’s one of the set’s crown jewels: “Professor X”, a track by Dave, who, as Modie in the series, is a tour de force with his presence. Santan’s pinpoint wordplay and agile flows pay tribute to the maximalist dreams that young soldiers have when mashing work—fast money, fast cars and women of all shades, immediately complemented by SL’s ode to the fairer sex: “100 Thoughts”.
But that joy is also inverted to reveal the inner turmoil Top Boy’s characters face; negotiating the gamble they take with their life and the danger they put on those close to them. The sobering thought that any day could be their last, that death or prison is almost assured and with it, becoming little more than another statistic for newscasters and politicians to use to bemoan soaring crime rates. On “Overseer”, road rap icon Youngs Teflon is melancholic in offering his perspective, reminiscing on the anguish the roads induced before music offered a way out of his situation—a fate not accessible for everyone. Elsewhere, Teeway confesses to having “thoughts of the dead” on “Feeling It”, a sombre reminder that this game comes with baggage to your mental, despite all of the glitz and glamour it seemingly possesses.
On Nafe Smallz’s second offering, “8 Missed Calls”, he reflects on the personal sacrifices needed to grind, including relationships and personal safety, leaving little room for anything other than watching your back for the police or a rival gang. From front to back, Top Boy’s 2019 soundtrack brings to life integral scenes from the show, such as Modie’s escape from prison, or Dushane’s return to London from Jamaica. Each musical juncture, often incendiary and in places reflective, makes you reason with both sides, putting you in the shoes of a street soldier in the trenches of Summerhouse.
“For the culture, the series and the soundtrack have served as an entry point for new eyes and ears to the music and the many faces that form this new era—a validation of our authenticity and just how far it can go and where it can reach.”
Though released to coincide with the first season of Netflix’s renewed series—and its third season overall—the soundtrack’s beauty lies in its universal approach. Applicable to each season up to its recently released final season, it carries themes transferrable outside of the London space, into hoods far and wide where young men and women must reason with their life to reach their idea of success. Since its 2019 drop, Black British music and culture has continued to soar, with artists such as Central Cee becoming global music titans and actors like Daniel Kaluuya becoming firmly positioned in Hollywood’s A-list. Scan TikTok and you’ll likely find videos of non-Brits trying (and butchering) our slang, reviewing our music and appraising our exports. It’s been a long road to this point, and Top Boy’s role is indelible.
For the culture, the series and the soundtrack have served as an entry point for new eyes and ears to the music and the many faces that form this new era—a validation of our authenticity and just how far it can go and where it can reach. Though Top Boy’s run is now over, its impact will endure as long as Black British culture shines on.