In the creative doldrums following UK drill’s ascent to the mainstream, that style’s musical forebear, road rap—the cruddy sound spearheaded by Giggs and co. back in the early 2000s—is getting some shine, with a new generation of rappers swapping VHS grit for VVS glint. Chief among the reemergent scene’s new talents is North Londoner Clavish, whose cold precision and pugilistic wordplay have gained him a cult fan base among both aging UK rap fans and newer followers discovering a taste for slower beats and greater introspection than pop-leaning drill can offer.
Clavish first captured imaginations back in 2018 with a 40-second clip of a louche freestyle delivered from the back seat of a hatchback; he followed up with an eight-minute monologue of sharp, guarded storytelling. Since then, he’s kept his output to a trickle, using the scarcity of his releases to heighten their impact. His character recalls The Wire’s Marlo Stanfield, sharing the clean-cut antagonist’s mixture of sinister, sunken-eyed detachment and bristling ambition. A lazy observer might call his demeanor effortlessly cool (which, yes, it sort of is); but the more studied critique is that paradox is central to almost everything Clavish does.
Clavish is witty—“The streets aren’t for everyone, that’s why they made the curbs,” offers “No Interview”—yet unswervingly humorless, too. He cuts music checks to free himself from a street lifestyle he holds in contempt, but, like Pacino in the Godfather, forever flirts with being pulled back in. He seems to relish the obvious contradiction of rapping immaculately for minutes on end while reiterating that he’s not trying or doesn’t care for recognition. “This mixtape's just for everyone to know I'm hard/Don't care about being in the charts,” he sighs on breezy highlight “That’s Silly,” as if waiting to be tested on his claims. It’s puckish, and enticing. However, the unignorable inconsistency at the heart of Rap Game Awful is that despite his aloof, exacting style, Clavish has turned in a debut album that is, inexplicably, 28 tracks long. Stretched out like this, the few holes in his game—namely a dearth of stories that stretch beyond his immediate North London environs, and a limited selection of flows—are at risk of crowding out his shows of genuine excellence.
Rap Game Awful checks a full NC-17 bingo card of drugs, sex, and violence, all peppered, like a movie premiere’s red-carpet backdrop, with an endless spool of designer brand names. “When I’m upset I fly Sloane Street, Louis Vuitton, and Prada,” he spits on the midnight glide of “1 More Than 6.” But splashing cash can only offer so much succor, which leads him to pleasures of a more carnal kind; jewels and intimate violence provide the rest. His lyrics, for the most part unanchored from any discernible choruses, flit between these topics in a kaleidoscopic melee both entrancing and unsettling, conjuring patterns from shapes that simply shouldn’t fit. It’s an experience to gorge on.
That is, until it’s not. The uniformity of each song’s contents, and the inevitable return to each familiar theme—fucking, fighting, flexing—ends up spotlighting where Clavish hits and where he misses: He sounds untouchable as he glides a hopscotch flow over hotel lounge piano on “That’s Silly,” but then he stutters on the inapposite “Eleanor Rigby”/“Thong Song” strings of “Traumatised.” The chorus on “I Told You So” sounds half-baked, but on “FR” he’s soaring. The intro and outro tracks offer narrative bones to pick over, along with glimpses of the man behind the designer garments; on “22 Missed Calls,” he experiments with more conceptual song structures, with promising results—but moments like these risk being lost amid a wash of sameness.
Like the clip that kickstarted Clavish’s career, Rap Game Awful leaves you wanting more—just not in terms of quantity. There’s an album’s worth of tracks here that put Clavish head and shoulders above his peers, which only makes the other album’s worth of misfires more disappointing for their inclusion. What you want more of, really, is what you suspect Clavish could do, not what you already know he can.