Richard Cowie has never looked like someone who wants to play the game. As the globally-recognised godfather of grime, the man who goes by the handle Wiley has flirted around the edges of populism while never seemingly being arsed enough to do what it takes to be a bona fide popstar. Hence the myriad no-shows at gigs, constant retirement threats, jealousy-tinged beefs with contemporaries who’ve dared to leap the boundary, refusing to appear in his own promotional videos… the list goes on.
Official album number nine, The Ascent, is meant to be the moment Wiley realises his potential as the man with more flow than Dizzee, Tinie and Tinchy put together. The record marks his debut release on a major label and follows not-so- hot-on-the-heels of last summer’s chart-topping earworm ‘Heatwave’. And if that wasn’t enough, it also includes cameos from a swathe of the UK’s and US’s finest rhyming talent. By all intents, this should be the one.
So what do you do if you’re Wiley? You leak the entire record six days before it’s due to drop, of course. What should have been a sure thing, may have been sabotaged the man who stands to benefit most from these tunes being gobbled up by a surge of paying punters. That judder you’ve just felt is Warners’ PR team repeatedly thumping their heads against their iPads.
To the outside world it seems like Wiley couldn’t give a shit. But it’s much more likely he does. This is a man, after all, who has spent his career finessing a personal brand that serves to differentiate his particular form of grime from the competition. Playing the iconoclast is all part of an image that’s gestated since his early garage days, sculpting out a contrarian caricature that creates the mystique that he is something unique, something untameable.
This tactic makes The Ascent a rather curious proposition. As Wiley albums go, this is as populous a record as he’s ever produced. The beats, the rhymes, the hooks and the plethora of mic-sharing guests combine to deliver one full throttle assault on the mainstream. If you found Wiley through the careening corporate-club swell of ‘Heatwave’, it will help you recall those demented Jägerbomb-fuelled nights; but for long-standing fans it will feel like a Krystal-swigging shunt away from the syncopating, off-kilter bangers of the past.
Ever on guard, Wiley seems to pre-empt the reaction of his more faithful devotees, thanking them for keeping him grounded during the euphoric, but utterly derivative, EDM charge of 'Hands in The Air'. The cognisance doesn’t last. What follows touch kicks all of what made Wiley so compelling – the idiosyncratic production, palpitating beats and self-effacing rhymes – in favour of manufactured chart fodder that focuses on three predictable staples: girls, booze and living the life of Riley (or more pertinently, Wiley).
In truth, The Ascent doesn’t actually feel like a Wiley record. That’s mainly because it’s a struggle to find him amongst the gaggle of voices that spit their way across vapid efforts like the Chip and Ms D collaboration ‘Reload’ and the pedestrian Far East Movement-mauled ‘So Alive’. But even when he decides to make a full appearance on spacey album swansong ‘Humble Pie’, there’s a laboured energy to his flow as he reels off sloppy verses like: “She wants Nandos, I want Chinese, I’m Capricorn, she is a Pisces”.
Mercifully, Wiley still has enough in his armoury to knock out the occasional scorcher. Album opener ‘The Ascent Introduction’ is a harrowing grind of piano samples and throbbing static that bear no resemblance to the gossamer sheen of what’s to follow. Elsewhere, Emeli Sande’s appearance on ‘My Heart’ escalates its punctuating brass and stropping percussion into a traumatic emotional tear jerker that has Wiley exposing himself with unfamiliar frailty.
Despite the occasional apogee, The Ascent represents a rather strange point in Wiley’s career. On one hand, its highly glossed arrangements maximise the opportunity for a full scale invasion of the mainstream. Yet, so readily do these sounds step away from what made their creator such a peerless proposition, they risk tarnishing his reputation at the grassroots. Wiley may not want to play, but the game is now in full effect.
4Billy Hamilton's Score