It was only a month ago that East London grime and rap vet Ghetts announced he’d be releasing a new album, but with the coronavirus pandemic screwing with the passage of time, it feels like it’s been an eternity since the artwork and cryptic clues began to grace his Twitter and Instagram. Regardless, the point is it’s here now.
In recent years, Justin Clarke’s powers as a songwriter have been getting better and better, seemingly with each passing day. What we’re now getting is a more circumspect Ghetts. Past albums like Rebel With A Cause and Ghetto Gospel: The New Testament hinted at a lot of what’s at play on Conflict Of Interest—the different flows, adventurous beat choices, the touches of soul—but not quite to this degree. It wasn’t until we got pre-release singles such as “Mozambique” and “Proud Family” that it became really apparent just how much the rapper’s songcraft has evolved. He’s always been a storyteller, even from his earliest days on the mic, but the imagery and use of beats suggest a Ghetts that’s matured into the elder statesman he was always destined to be. Even one of the album’s rowdiest moments—“No Mercy” with Pa Salieu and BackRoad Gee—featured a scene in its video where G-H offers his advice and years of experience to the next generation of shellers.
There’s also a certain freeness to this album that we’ve never quite heard before. Where past efforts seemed tightly wound and intense, here Ghetts feels like he’s at peace, as if he’s hit the creative stride he always wanted to hit and has completely rid himself of any concern about what the rest of the world wants from him. This, in its purest sense, is exactly the kind of album he wanted to make and you can hear it in every single lyric.
Our first impressions review of Conflict Of Interest is after the jump.
The Trinity of Justin Clarke shows up, shows out
‘Wordsmith’ gets thrown around way too loosely when it comes to describing certain emcees. Being able to put bars together is of course a skill, but how many of today’s spitters can stop you dead in your tracks and make you rewind parts of a song just so you can process the effortlessly-delivered punchlines and metaphors? Ghetts has been doing this since his 2007 mixtape, Ghetto Gospel, which is without question one of grime’s most treasured works. Throughout the 16 tracks on Conflict Of Interest, his third album, each of Justin Clarke’s alter-egos show up and show out: the latter is a God-fearing man of the world on tracks like “Fire & Brimstone” and “Fine Wine”, ‘06 Ghetto gets gully on “Skengman” with Stormzy and “Crud” with Giggs, while Ghetts takes the best of each and lyrically finesses on “Dead To Me” and “Hop Out”. This album—from start to finish—shows G-H’s growth as a man, as a father, and as one of the pillars of Black British music who is now finally getting his props after almost two decades in. —Joseph ‘JP’ Patterson
The pen is Ivor Novello-worthy
The songwriting on Conflict of Interest reminds us why Ghetts is in the highest echelon of British recording artists. At this level, we can breeze past all the talk of technical proficiency that all good songwriters have and speak of the nuanced qualities that makes him a great songwriter. The Plaistow MC is masterful in how he interweaves the journey of his personal life with that of Black British musical history over the last two decades. But it is the self-awareness of his lyrics: the contemplation of his actions both past and present, the stocktaking of his achievements, the evaluation of his close relationships, his spiritual growth and the fears that still plague him now. Even his machismo is a little more elevated as his crud talk now carries the elegance of someone with nothing to prove. He demonstrates the full range of his arsenal as he gives us songs that echo the grit of grime, the skippy vibes of UKG, the sauce of road rap and the melodic essence of R&B, all intertwined with unexpected licks of jazz, experimental electronica and UK drill. This is what makes Conflict Of Interest sound refreshingly contemporary—a feat many rappers with as many years in the game struggle to do in their newer projects. —Caleb Femi
His production camp understood the vision
What Ghetts is doing now is more exciting than anything else of his impressive back catalogue. Production-wise, it feels like the best of his potential, using largely minimal beats to find entirely new ways to express himself rather than delivering mile-a-minute tongue-twisters over intensive rave riddims. What’s most impressive about this album is that for all its genre-hopping eclecticism—we’ve got gospel, trap, rap, grime, gqom and more besides—is that there’s this unwavering and immediately apparent throughline tying it all together. His long-standing creative allies Rude Kid and Sir Spyro make appearances (“Mozambique” and “Good Hearts”, respectively), but the bulk of production on Conflict Of Interest comes from TenBillion Dreams, Reiss Nicholas, TJ Amadi (aka TJ 2 Percent), and Kadeem Clarke (aka Blk Vynl). These names may seem like relative unknowns but Ghetts has been working with most of them for quite a few years now in one way or another. This is what happens when you make an album with just a small, tight-knit team rather than an army of whoever’s popular in that moment. Moreover, it’s testament to the power of Ghetts’ creative vision—James Keith
Call this what it is: a future classic
G-H has always been a purposeful MC, with his every word, metaphor and message carefully crafted and exceptionally executed, the result of years perfecting his craft. It’s almost hard to believe that this quality has levelled up on Conflict Of Interest. His clarity shines throughout, giving his intricate storytelling even more weight as he dissects his own life in ways that would impress the best therapists. “Autobiography” is the ultimate epitome of this, an excellent front row view into his past and present. He’s mastered the art of finding an instrumental’s pocket, enveloping it with his scientific bars, flows and vocal inflections as he morphs from Ghetts to Ghetto with ease. When all is said and done, Conflict Of Interest will be viewed as a landmark of UK Black music, the ultimate presentation of one of our finest. Everything about this album feels pretty special—from Ghetts’ performance to the visuals for “Mozambique”, “IC3”, “Proud Family”, “Skengman” and “No Mercy”—as if his entire life and career has led to this moment. Justin Clarke has turned what has been a purple patch for him over the last few years into key components of his growing legacy. —Yemi Abiade
Ghetts has lived up to his Top 3 Selected status
From his earliest sets with N.A.S.T.Y Crew as Ghetto, to his ripping up grime’s rulebook with The Movement, to his current reign as an elder statesman of the scene, Ghetts has never been afraid to stand out. Whether clashing with the scene’s top dogs or challenging the established orthodoxy surrounding grime’s established tempos or sounds, you could count on Ghetts to never take the easy road. Conflict Of Interest may be his boldest move yet however, looking back at a life of struggle and success from a distance without ever coming off as aloof. It all starts with the flow: though he’s long tempered his signature aggy delivery with nuance and subtlety, he’s never been quite so calm and reflective as on tracks like “Fire & Brimstone”, where he’s practically spitting from a therapist’s couch. For a guy who came into the game spitting like East London’s Vegeta, that’s a bold move. Better yet, when he does ramp up the energy, he not only matches peers like Skepta and Stormzy, but goes toe-to-toe with newcomers Pa Salieu and BackRroad Gee without missing a beat. Above all, however, Conflict Of Interest will go down as Ghetts’ most reflective album as he tackles relationships, family and life on-road with sincerity and heart. —Son Raw
5/5. —Joseph ‘JP’ Patterson