Novelist – Novelist Guy

The greatest advice one may ever proceed to give to an artist of any variety is to never tell them what they’re doing. Don’t try to pinpoint their styles, their influences, their inspirations to them, lest all of that start to dictate what their careers become about. In all forms, especially music, one sees the artists instantly make the decisions to either resist and back away from this sort of readymade classification, or double down on every implication with vehement eagerness. No genre has been more compromised by this in the last few years than grime, once the cutting edge of UK Urban music, now spending the very last of its years dictated to itself by phony experts on music sites who only maintain casual interest with the genre or clout chasing ‘influencers’ who want to convince you they were ‘rolling with the mandem in the pirates’ in the same sentence which they try to sell you overpriced clothes they themselves wouldn’t be caught dead wearing. And perhaps none of grime’s most recent generation feels like a casualty of too much dictation of what grime’s supposed to be than one of the men who lead to its recent revival, Novelist.

Let us be sure to give credit to where it’s due when we proceed with discussing Novelist’s debut album; in the last few years, Novelist deserves full credit with pushing grime from its goals of pop adulation and mirroring the commercialization of rap to a return to the sound that initially snatched so many attentions to the scene back when it was the rotten, aggressive cousin of UK Garage that gave us the likes of your Wileys, Skeptas and Dizzee Rascals. Hell, were it not for early tracks from Novelist and his former friends in The Square, one has to wonder if Skepta would’ve returned to the eski clicks on “That’s Not Me” or instead preferred to stick to the more rap friendly sounds of his Blacklisted mixtape from before, and if we’d have seen such a boom in the scene. Conjecture aside however, while initial buzz for Novelist seemed to spike years before, it has been a surprisingly long wait for any solo full-length to emerge. Since then, he’s left one crew (the aforementioned Square) to found another (the Vision Crew, who’d he’d briefly tried to push as the awfully named ‘Tuugset’), done his best to paint himself as a critical thinker of politics in the media, tried and seemingly failed to start a whole new musical genre called ‘Ruff Sound’, and released more than a few collaborations and singles that have with each release seemingly gotten more and more caught up with ‘sounding like grime’ than impressing listeners. Now, in 2018, we have his debut album Novelist Guy, but with the grime revival cresting and wavering in the wake of the rises of the more modern styles of drill and afro-trap, is it safe to say that the aspiring MC has failed to demonstrate his initial promise?

Unlike many of the earliest grime albums, where MCs were usually compiling a bunch of verses they’d woodshedded as bars for sets on pirate radio sessions into makeshift songs that sometimes manifested into bangers, Novelist Guy appears to be a record comprised mostly of new material that Nov has worked his hardest at turning into a cohesive and representative body of work. Entirely self-produced and with no guest features, it’s an accomplishment in itself that puts him heads above even some of the very OGs of the scene in some respects. However, given Novelist’s growing absence from the scene, it’s become a bit obvious that some of this independence and isolation has resulted in a record that doesn’t easily fit in with the rest of the grime scene, and not for the better. Production-wise, Novelist’s palette has taken an interesting turn into messing with strange rotten-sounding synth lines and beatless soundscapes that without the context of MCs would certainly make an interesting listen. Were Novelist arguably attempting to make a ‘weightless’ instrumental grime album for fans of experimental producers such as Visionist or Logos, one could easily see the appeal. Yet these tracks feel remarkably inhospitable and flat, to the point of sterility so that when riddims such as the obnoxious “Wait Wait Wait” or the molasses nag of “Gangster” kick in, one asks yourself that if any other MC heard these riddims being sent their way, would they be as determined to ride them?

Meanwhile if one was to say that production veered in the direction of ‘gambles that hadn’t paid off’, on the MC side Novelist sounds frighteningly conservative and meek. While his voice had never had the sense of character that the MCs from the decade before, opting for a plain brashness instead of affectation, any of the energy from early tunes seems outright deflated. The majority of the album features him reciting bars in a slow, droning monotone with a remarkable lack of confidence or projection, his flows equally stiff and without comfort. The energy is consistently stern and serious, and over the course of the albums tracks, reveal a surprising joylessness from the young man that feels worlds away from the eagerness to prove of the Novelist from a few years ago. And while his MCing itself now often feels belabored, the content is remarkably dry and studious, often belabored with impressing a knowledgeable quality to each and every moment he can. Granted this sort of sense of presence and introspection was often found on debuts from the likes of Kano, JME and Dizzee, but it never sounded so redundant. Whenever Novelist manages to talk in terms of optimism, such as the hooks on “Smile” or “Better Way”, it has all the enthusiasm of someone reciting a corporate slogan at a new job orientation.

Ultimately, ‘studious’ appears to be the ultimate damnation of Novelist Guy as an album, for each track feels conspicuously designed to appeal not to grime fans but to the perceptions of grime. To be more precise, every element of this album feels deliberately done to appeal to the prolonged fantasy of grime that every record was “gritty, neo-realist urban protest music each with their own lo-fi Channel U video full of tracksuits; made on Playstations to sound wholly experimental”. The result however is that next to commercial crossovers like Konnichiwa or Gang Signs & Prayer, Novelist Guy sounds conceptualized to the point of being stillborn. It isn’t so much that his references to old school guy are too ‘on the nose’, they’re sledgehammering the points so hard the structure is collapsing. Listening to a record like “Smiles” feels like Novelist heard the anecdotal information that Dizzee listened to Three 6 Mafia and tried to make a strange midway point between Memphis Rap and Grime that made sure you knew he understood the connection. And when we arrive at his inevitable political statement record “Stop Killing The Man Dem” Novelist’s contradictory politics that equate black on black violence with police brutality reveal that unlike the generation prior’s sense of frustration and anxiety, his politics feel more about sloganeering without direction or purpose. Ironically the only moment of spontaneity and freedom in the album is a brief moment of Novelist using him on a radio session as an interlude, which in itself appears to be a desperate bid to compare himself to the way his heroes were memorialized, failing to recognize just how devoid of spark he sounds now.

To say that Novelist Guy is a disappointment is not entirely suitable due to the fact that much is going on to demonstrate the considerable craft and talent available to Novelist that has come with years of working at developing himself. However, he and his album feel labored on to the point of redundancy and have become drastically out of step with the rest of the grime scene and with a lot of UK Music in general. Should he succeed with this album, perhaps this indicates a new direction for the genre that will change grime in ways none could foresee. Yet if this album is far too late to seize on the momentum of a wave that he himself bore to fruition, I question if Novelist is going to get to reap the rewards of all this labor. Because as a listener, there is not quite enough reward for the wait.

 

Written by /
Published /
May 8
Category /
Album Review