As I glanced upon the shortlist of the 2019 Mercury Music Prize nominees earlier in the year, a wave of shock and disbelief hit me …. this is actually … alright?? 2019’s list of artists perfectly reflects a year where quality and popularity genuinely seem to be correlating, proving that major record labels may actually be acknowledging the urgent dosage of personality needed back in our music scene.
Perhaps the greatest embodiment of this is Northampton rapper slowthai, with his record Nothing Great About Britain earning him the title of bookies favorite. The 24-year old’s performance at the ceremony went viral after he was spotted swinging round the decapitated head dolled up to mirror our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. The act emphasizes the rappers punk ethos, something praised by fellow nominees, Bristolian post-punk band Idles. Are previous years of redundancy and predictability making way for a genuine radicalism being shared by some of the country’s biggest and brightest new talent?
The answer is no, not necessarily. While you could hardly imagine the tall one from RizzleKicks risking his platform by threatening David Cameron with ultraviolence at the decade’s commence, the ceremony did ultimately display an allegiance to our more conventional media ‘darlings’.
The prize ultimately went to South London rapper Dave. While the decision was far less lazy than the twin pairing of Foals or The 1975, it was nonetheless an outcome mirrored by Psychodrama’s commercial success.
Hailed as the prodigal son of UK rap for several years now, the judges consensus to give the award to Dave seemed significant in allowing this trajectory to take place. With a leading role in Drake produced Top Boy series three, as well as his ‘Alex from Glasto’ performance receiving over 8 million views on YouTube, the prize ensures Dave’s development to the next tier in mainstream music.
It is probably unfair to label Dave’s win as a safe choice. The album is largely a commentary of his tough upbringing, managing to contain pop crossover appeal while not sacrificing any integrity or emotion. In another year perhaps Psychodrama would deserve to take home the prize, but among a shortlist of albums containing genuine originality and experimentation, it feels anticlimactic.
Take black midi, a band who meld noise rock, jazz and new wave end up sounding like a cyberpunk fronted Talking Heads. Islington MC and fellow Top Boy star Little Simz, whose album ‘GREY area’ was released at the start of the year is all killer with no filler; the album is outstanding in how it manages to contain so many influences instrumentally while retaining consistent quality from Simz’s performances. It is the album’s lyricism, playful production and moments of sheer poignancy that I believe deemed it worthy of the prize. One wonders if it is her Britishness or indeed her gender that prevents her placement at the very top of rap music.
Overall, there is much to be happy about with this year’s Mercury Music Prize. The nominees represent the possibility for an exciting shift in our popular music scene, and all but proves the sterility present in recent years.