September 2, 2016, marked the day Tottenham boy, Wretch 32 released what’s only his third album since his 2008 debut Wretchrospective, though he has certainly been busy during this time. In 2011, he released his second album Black and White.
In the meantime, in between time, he’s had features left and right and centre, released mixtapes – most notably the more recent collaborative mixtape Young Fire Old Flame with up and coming Tottenham MC Avelino, and churned out numerous freestyles, including a wicked ‘Fire In The Booth’ on Charlie Sloth’s BBC 1xtra show, a ‘Daily Duppy’ on GRM Daily, among others, this year.
As one of the UK’s best wordsmiths, Wretch 32 is never short of work or relevancy, and over the span of his career, he has gained the love of UK Hip Hop and Grime fans, and more importantly, his peers in the UK music scene and culture, many of whom he came up with in the very first wave of Grime. Fellow artists such as Kano, Giggs and Ghetts have already shown their support for the album release, after Wretch 32’s visual album sampler of Growing Over Life was released online.
It’s been no easy feat to reach the heights of Wretch 32, he has put in WERK! He’s been on a massive journey from the days of Learn from my Mixtape (2006) and it shows through his music, as he has had as much underground success, as he has had commercial success, whilst his talent hasn’t faltered a bit. And he STILL doesn’t get all the recognition he deserves, in my humble opinion, but that’s an article for another day.
Growing Over Life opens with “ANTWI“, a passionate and hard track titled in dedication to Richard Antwi – well-known music lawyer said to be responsible for launching Wretch’s career – who sadly passed away in February this year. This track journals Wretch’s grief, background, struggles behind the music and goals; making bold statements like “that’s why I punch above my weight ’till I beat Adele“. He has huge goals and he’s on the right track.
“ANTWI” is followed by much less of the same, there are archetypal R&B and Hip Hop tunes featuring dreamy keys, string sections, boom kats and soulful vocals like those on the likes of “Cooked Food” and “Dreams/Sunshine“, and the production on the album is strongly anchored in the UK soundscape – even the R&B and Hip Hop sounds.
This is anchored by standout track “6 Words“, on which Wretch doesn’t even rap but SINGS for all 3 plus minutes! A very brave artistic decision to step out of his comfort of beats and rhymes. “6 Words” has a very commercial drum and bass sound, drawing from British origins without excluding the ear of those who may not know or like drum and bass – drum and bass lite, if you will?
It is actually a much older song than the rest of those on the album, as it was released a number of years ago, but it’s a track Wretch, rightly, claims to be very proud of. Talking to RWD Magazine, Wretch says “it’s a sick song, that I’m mad proud of, and it’s definitely part of my growth…I definitely think it needed to be on the album“. Lyrically it’s very touching and Wretch 32’s unpolished vocals are endearing, making the perfect soundtrack on which to speak of counting blessings and fatherhood.
“6 Words” is followed by two of my favourite tracks on the album, “Open Conversation & Mark Duggan” and “Liberation“. On these tracks in particular, Wretch 32 flexes his social commentary chops, discussing his personal relationship to Mark Duggan and the effects of his well-publicised plight.
In the two-part “Open Conversation & Mark Duggan”, Wretch reminisces “‘Member they put the cuffs on me, felt like I couldn’t even stand up or breathe, Brother Mark never made it to custody” – in the first half of the track which is backed by a slow hard hitting beat paced out by what sounds like a melodic ecg monitor, perhaps symbolic of life?
As wretch also discusses his own plight growing up with “holes in his tee” alongside Mark Duggan, also from Tottenham, North London, the song pulses along, leaving room for thought and space to hear the stories being told. This song also shines a light on the injustice in the loss of Mark Duggan’s life, putting his and Wretch’s life side by side to show similarities and potential for the loss of a life such as Mark’s, had he not seen the police that fateful day.
“Liberation” highlights Wretch’s strength, and standing against police brutality and discrimination. I would even call it a protest song because the lyrics are angry, defiant and empowering, and the production is anthemic. I appreciate the personal and thoughtful perspective he provides on current issues affecting Londoners, especially those from a similar background.
The last four tracks wind down the album, with less percussion and bass, and more powerful vocals, but it continues with deep, personal themes including family life, relationships, God and much more. Growing Over Life is a body of work which sums up Wretch’s past his present and future. By the end, you feel an understanding of Wretch 32 as a man and an artist.
Overall there is a unique balance between urban and commercial sounds, and feature artists such as Emeli Sande and Kranium; making the album available to a wide audience of listeners, whilst the variety of lyrical depth and execution is there for those who appreciate Wretch for the impeccable lyrical swordsman that he is. It’s really a culmination of his career to date and it shows that he’s used all the skills and wisdom he has gained from the early days plus his commercial success.
In Wretch 32’s own words, talking to NME, who asked if Growing Over Life is a summer album, “… it’s a life record, though. There’s summer moments, there’s spring moments, there’s winter moments. It just reflects life, man“. This album is a great introduction to Wretch 32 and British music overall, whether you’re a fan of late or a fan from way back when.
Purchase Wretch 32’s Growing Over Life album on iTunes here.
Words by Vee Hylton