“Genre-fluid” gets tossed around enough to be cliché, but when it comes to slowthai, it’s usually more than a nerdy buzz word. Since debuting with his stellar Nothing Great About Britain album four years ago, the Bajan-British artist has used agile flows and cheeky wit to weave grime, electropop and punk soundscapes into a style that’s as potent as it is dynamic. For UGLY, he takes things a bit further in the rock direction, but such detours aren’t always as rewarding as they seem. 

The best parts of UGLY surface when the genre choice amplifies the effect of his lyrics. For “Sooner,” he makes upbeat indie rock the canvas for his tongue-in-cheek emotional transparency, giving his deliberately juvenile angst a tinge of irony that makes it feel cathartic while avoiding self-seriousness. On “Yum,” he sprints over pulsing electronics and the sounds of perspiration for a reflection on the sort of hedonism that can make even the biggest sinner feel claustrophobic. With his jumpy, staccato flow and a screeching baseline that sounds like a car crash, the track evokes Yeezus level exasperation (See “On Sight”). As is often the case on the new LP, the bars themselves can be too literal, but the manic intensity is enough to make it an overpowering anthem. 

For all his stylistic versatility, slowthai’s greatest strength remains his ability to rap stories with a compelling mix of nuance and humor. His first two albums saw him use bars to explore both himself and society at large with a dense slab of humanity. He dives into that skillset on “Never Again,” an affecting story of love and regret. Piling writerly details, he evokes the real-time anxiety that can come from tragedy or something as casually torturous as small-talk with your would-be inlaws. 

As specific as it is emotional, “Never Again” taps into the sort of imagistic lyricism that’s missing from UGLY, which too often falls into the same generic self-help platitudes that have plagued plenty of artists who decided to embrace therapy. Good for them, but being on the road to self-improvement isn’t interesting in itself, especially if you stray too far from what makes your art distinctive. By nature, rock pulls from more symbolic songwriting, which takes away from the sorts of granular moments — the technical precision, bursts of wordplay —  that make slowthai’s best songs so memorable. 

Released three years after an unfortunate — and slightly misrepresented — incident at an award show, the project’s title name, UGLY, stands for “U Got to Love Yourself,” which should have been a warning shot for the types of ham-fisted lyrics you find scrawled across the album. “Happy” features a spell-it-out-loud hook that feels like it belongs to an entry level class for emo rockers. Meanwhile, the chorus for “Selfish” sounds like the beginning or end of a rant from a COVID truther: “I’m just thinkin’ for myself.” 

The bland writing for the indie rock-leaning songs is made even more glaring by slowthai’s general lack of dynamism as a singer. His vocal inflections change, but his voice itself doesn’t carry much range, so you’re left with passable versions of songs other artists have already done. The best boundary-pushers use parts of their own style to traverse new musical territory. While tracks like “Sooner” are a success, UGLY doesn’t manage to complete the journey. 

User Feedback: