On UGLY, Slowthai lets it all out

April 20, 2023

Courtesy of Rolling Stone UK; Photo by Simon Emmett

Slowthai is angry at the world and himself. But on his latest album, UGLY (2023), that anger is an expression of faith in something better—though anger can be ugly, it’s certainly better than indifference. Ironically an acronym for “U Gotta Love Yourself,” UGLY represents Slowthai’s constant pursuit of self-love despite overwhelming self-loathing. While most of the album’s subject matter is quite dark, Slowthai’s dogged insistence on finding joy is deeply hopeful, and his commitment to exposing the ugliest parts of himself is undeniably cathartic.

Slowthai’s rise to prominence has been nothing short of meteoric. Just four years ago, he released his debut album Nothing Great About Britain (2019) to widespread acclaim, establishing himself as one of the most exciting British rappers on the scene. Whether intentional or not, Slowthai is never far from controversy, but somehow it only seems to fuel his mission. By combining searing social critique with unflinching vulnerability, the rapper calls on his listeners to be the best versions of themselves without an ounce of condescension—after all, he’s not shy about his own flaws. 

This uncomfortable, nonlinear process of self-improvement structures the tremendous highs and lows of UGLY; in one moment, Slowthai is “so happy it hurts deep in [his] sides,” in the next he is “sick of thinkin’ there’s a reason [he’s] here.” From the first moments of the album, we’re introduced to the artist’s two sides: the impulsive saboteur and the earnest, sensitive healer. This binary could have easily devolved into an overly simplistic angel on one shoulder/devil on the other dynamic, but Slowthai’s talent for storytelling coupled with bold sonic experimentation makes the conflict fresh and exciting at every turn.

Moving away from the heavily electronic sound of past albums, the rock instrumentation on UGLY is essential in heightening the album’s emotional potency. The atmospheric, distortion-soaked guitars on “Falling” and lo-fi synths on “Wotz Funny” are far removed from Slowthai’s grime roots, but UGLY feels like an ode to another quintessentially British genre: noughties Britpop. The guitars on “Wotz Funny,” “HAPPY,” and “UGLY” were recorded in a live room to mimic the sound of an on-stage performance, and this technique gives the tracks a sonic heft that perfectly complements Slowthai’s moving performances. On “UGLY” in particular Slowthai seems perfectly at home in the rock world, accompanied by instrumentals from Irish post-punk band Fontaines D.C. Even the guitars on this track carry a feeling of despair, building to a fever pitch before Slowthai reaches his ultimate revelation: “You are not in control the moment the world stands still,” he remarks over eerie synths.

UGLY comes out swinging, instantly creating a visceral sense of discomfort. “Yum” is a chaotic opener that puts you (for better or worse) right into Slowthai’s head. Over the sound of heavy, strained breathing and a hammering beat that—according to Slowthai—sounds like “having a panic attack in a nightclub,” he rants about his therapist and his own self-indulgence. He describes falling victim to his various addictions in repulsive detail—Slowthai has everything he wants within reach, and the realization that he might not be able to handle it is crushing. It’s a car crash you can’t look away from, a bracing portrait of the artist as he loses the tenuous grip on healing that he found on his last album, TYRON (2021). 

In its darkest moments, UGLY is deeply claustrophobic. Slowthai feels the pressure on all sides: from his fans, from his critics, and from himself. Throughout the album, he fiercely condemns the way jealousy corrodes his relationships, watching as the world ingratiates itself to achieve ever-elusive success. On the album’s angriest tracks like “Selfish” and “Tourniquet,” he masterfully manipulates his delivery to convey his gradual unraveling. Building from nearly a mumble to a voice that shakes with rage, Slowthai’s vocals are crucial to the album’s intense sense of compression and release. The outro of “Tourniquet” sharply illustrates his talent for vocal manipulation, as Slowthai once again chastises himself for failing to learn from his mistakes and trusting those who hurt him. He screams in pain, “​​I gave you more than I had to give/What’s left?” He responds with a whisper: “Take it all, take it all, take it and leave.” With each breath, Slowthai oozes devastation, his exhaustion palpable. 

UGLY isn’t all doom and gloom, as Slowthai carefully balances his despair with glimmers of infectious hope. While these moments are fleeting and, upon inspection, quite shallow, from a purely sonic perspective they provide a crucial reprieve from the melancholy majority of the album. Both “Feel Good” and “Sooner” are Slowthai’s attempts at faking it until he makes it—their upbeat surfaces mask his unease with optimism. The jangly, carefree sound of “Sooner” completely contrasts with its lyrics about intense desire for escape from his suffering. Collaborator Ethan P. Flynn, in a rich but despondent baritone, describes it best on the song’s chorus: Slowthai is “low at the best of times.” The undeniably upbeat “Feel Good” also seems a little too good to be true. Slowthai’s autotune-inflected mantra, “I feel so good,” repeats almost ad nauseum, and it starts to feel more like a command than a joyful confession. Slowthai recognizes that his journey to happiness is incomplete, spinning out into desperation on the energetic but moody “HAPPY”: “I would give everything for a smile … but how far is too far?” he questions, committed to finding happiness but with no illusions about the cost of that aim.

As musically arresting as UGLY is, Slowthai never compromises on lyricism. While he might be best known for the way his distinct Northampton accent makes for unusual rhymes (who could forget him rhyming “dealer” with “Fila” on his breakout hit “T N Biscuits”?), Slowthai’s storytelling is impressive in its own right. On “Never Again,” he tells the tragic story of an ex who was killed by her partner, and his simple, conversational tone packs an emotional gut punch. Battling regret that he “walked away,” Slowthai focuses on little traces of the unnamed woman: “Still got pictures on my phone/I still sleep on your side of the bed,” he croons over a muted bass line that thrums with grief. Whenever UGLY verges on melodrama, these simple, disarmingly vulnerable confessions ground it and complicate seemingly simple feelings—anger, infatuation, and hope are all tinged with heartbreaking uncertainty. 

Even on “25% Club,” Slowthai’s unconditional love threatens his own healing. His lovesick delivery, over gentle acoustic guitar and piano, distracts from the unhealthy expectations he puts on himself—“I cheat on myself to give you the world,” he half-promises, half-threatens. Still, his self-sacrifice and acceptance of the ugly is almost romantic. Who wouldn’t be enticed by his persistent plea that “we both have to break like porcelain plates/But I got some glue, so we can rebuild”? Sadly, the gauzy, delicate sound of “25% Club” exposes his own disbelief in this fantasy. “I think in a world where we long to be complete, it’s a myth, it’s a delusion of grandeur that you’re going to get this missing piece of yourself and it’s going to make you feel whole,” Slowthai told Apple Music.

UGLY is hardly a walk in the park—even at his most optimistic, Slowthai is haunted by misery. Still, the album navigates the delicate balance between wallowing and cleansing, arriving at a tentative but comforting peace. Slowthai presents his pain with purpose, breaking it into something beautiful.

VOICE’S CHOICES: Sooner, Never Again, UGLY, Tourniquet

Isabel Shepherd
Isabel is a senior in the college studying sociology, English, and art history. She loves trying new hobbies, but she isn’t very good at keeping them.

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