Byows, Bars and Bass-Boosted Beats: Unknown T’s ADOLESCENCE

From its opening, surely inspired by the samples that introduce Skepta’s 2016 masterpiece Konnichiwa, Unknown T’s second mixtape Adolescence doesn’t play many games. In a genre rarely taken seriously, T drains this record dry for the most part and is clearly set on driving Drill forward as a sub-genre making a mixtape comprised of almost constant hits, whether they be the more pop-friendly RnB-ish Sweet Lies or the incredible Goodums which will appeal to those who are looking for the more hard-edged hip-hop.

Kanye West played his part in popularising drill this year with Off the Grid, when the beat transitions from a more traditional hip-hop beat fuelled by horns into an intense drill instruments designed for Fivio Foreign’s extended verse and West’s own first attempt with the genre. Drake has been important too, undoubtedly, as the US and U.K. appear to be collaborating more than beefing for the first time in a while – it seems that, for a long time, the U.K. considered most American hip-hop too mainstream and commercial, and would differentiate themselves on purpose. As Dan Hancox explains in his excellent book Inner City Pressure: The Story of Grime, this came with the greats like BBK (JME, Skepta, etc) pioneering a second generation of grime in the 2010s with their artful approach that merged the nostalgia of late 90s and early 2000s grime beats with a newer, raw energy that had been lacking since Dizzee Rascal became a pop-star after releasing the brilliant Boy In Da Corner.

Hip-hop has changed since the mid-2010s, perhaps more noticeably than any other genre has. Hip-hop moves fast, constantly morphing as new trends are set on a weekly basis. Unknown T doesn’t give in to trends, but he does clearly take genuine inspiration from some of them and it shows on this record. The previously mentioned track, Goodums, sees him rapping over piano that sounds more like it belongs on a contemporary Bond song than a drill track at the same time as incorporating rapping in multiple languages just as Jay Electronica did on his 2020 album A Written Testimony and filling sonic gaps with great ad-libs in a way made popular by SoundCloud rappers like Playboi Carti. This constant merging of so many inspirations and ideas, as well as Unknown T’s unique use of slang that he uses to give his lyrics a cryptic edge and additional wordplay, makes T’s record elevate beyond most drill which is often seen as disposable music for teenaged boys in Britain.

The second half of the album in particular is a showcase of lyrical ability for Unknown T. Again, Goodums sees him explore ideas around adultery in a simultaneously direct and abstract way as some lines are equivalent to simply being told ideas and others require knowledge of London slang, hip-hop culture and even Unknown T’s personal life. From Goodums onwards, the rest of the album seems to transition away from the pop-rap heights of VIN DIESEL and Driller Sh!t into a more religious and emotional direction.

On No Forgiveness, Nafe Smallz’s hook talks about how with the Summer sun in the sky, he still feels in the midst of Winter. It’s a poetic description of a bleak world, fitting with the album in general which consistently links T’s life to war (see tracks 3 and 4, WW2 and Trenches) and focuses on overcoming that war zone through hip-hop and hedonism most of the time. It isn’t all doom and gloom – the mixtape remains vibrant and bursting with high energy but it also doesn’t romanticise the life that Unknown T has lived and is still living. The celebrations of his success are met with equally remorseful and regretful documentations of his past, making for a more intelligent and delicately balanced mixtape than most Drill artists are able to conduct. T proves himself as a fantastic lyricist on every track, capturing all attention with his wordplay gymnastics and intense flows that reminded me most frequently of Freddie Gibbs (if that isn’t high praise, I don’t know what is). His roster of producers – which includes Chris Rich, Ghosty and R14 for example – is also great, creating a hardcore hip-hop album with a consistent but varied sound that makes the mixtape feel all the more cohesive. It’s just brilliant, and absolutely one of the best rap albums of the year. Hell, it is one of the best albums of the year in general, it is simply excellent.

I came across Unknown T via this performance on Colors. I will link it here because I have a feeling it’ll have the same impact on some of you as it did me – that was, I instantly went and listened to both of his mixtapes. Enjoy:

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