Over the past 10 years Wiley has cemented his status as grime’s most enduring crossover artist. Sometimes awkwardly and sometimes seamlessly, he has managed to straddle the fragile divide between hard-edged underground grime and commercial pop over the course of eight albums.
Perhaps Wiley’s success is down to his ability to appropriate current trends coupled with his fascinating character. Prone to flights of fantasy and conflict, (this album has already been leaked by the rapper in protest at iTunes) Wiley is a man who does things very much on his own idiosyncratic ways. His ninth studio album The Ascent provides bits of everything in Wiley’s multifaceted world.
While his last album, 2012’s Evolve Or Be Extinct, saw Wiley defiantly asserting his ability to stay ahead of grime’s young pretenders, The Ascent is predominantly a celebratory album, coming off the back of the most commercially successful period of his career. Last summer’s Number 1 hit Heatwave is given prominence right in the centre of the album. It fits in well with ultra bright pop tracks designed for the club dance floor.
Reload, featuring a strong vocal from Ms D, is a track that best represents the album’s rejoicing of the power of music. It sees Wiley imploring the DJ to play another record: “I want this moment for life,” he raps. Musically, it’s one of the most energising tracks, consisting as it does of an invigorating mix of sharp glassy synths and drum & bass break beats. The ability to incorporate different club sounds into his music has always been a strong Wiley trait, and throughout much of this record he achieves this same melange of styles while notching up accessible hooks and melodies.
Examples of Wiley’s harder edged approach are front loaded at the start of the album. The brutalist lurch of the siren blaring First Class, featuring Kano, deals with the economy and seems to be at odds with the feel of the rest of the album. It’s an incredibly thrilling piece of vigorous, almost industrial hip-hop. Skillzone is equally frenetic; here, a swirling mix of beats and weird rhythms combine with bratty, snotty rhymes from a procession of UK grime MCs, culminating in a verse from perhaps the most promising new UK rapper around just now, Scrufizzer.
Not all the guest appearances on the album are quite so successful. The promising verses of Hands In The Air are let down by an awfully bland phoned in hook from Tulisa and Far East Movement’s US sheen jars with Wiley’s distinctive British tones on So Alive. It is a commendably different approach, but it doesn’t quite come off. So Alive does play an important role however, in terms of the album’s spirit. It’s indicative of the confidence and energy inspiring Wiley at this point of his career. It’s a spirit that carries on into the clarion call of Can You Hear Me.
Over the course of the album’s second half the theme of love and relationships emerges, and it’s a love founded in the club and in shared club experiences. Light’s On sees Wiley sweetly rapping about finding a girl and leaving with her at the end of the night. The last three songs perhaps deal with that relationship going sour. Tomorrow is reflective and soulful, and Emeli Sandé provides a lovely understated chorus to the soul baring My Heart. The celebratory mood of many of the previous tracks has certainly dissipated by closer Humble Pie, an evocative dreamy coda quite unlike anything Wiley has ever made.
The Ascent is an album that highlights Wiley’s all-round ability as pop star, grime rapper, producer and, increasingly, songwriter. There may be a general lack of aggression or grit this time round, but this is more than countered by an impressive selection of songs.