Did Grime sell out to go mainstream?
Back in November last year, a poster was put up in an Oxfam shop in Streatham, South London. It told that small corner of the UK that Stormzy would headline the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury 2019 – the first ever grime artist to do so.
Off the back of the news, young and enthusiastic journalists fervently questioned whether the world of grime music had finally hit the mainstream. How, they asked, did a genre “built from beats which are too strange and irregular to dance to, rapping that is too fast to be clear on the radio, lyrics full of slang and swear words, songs not really geared towards hooks and choruses, and artists unwilling to play the industry game” cross over into popular culture?
Some hypothesise that grime is the punk-rock of the 21st Century; a musically charged political means of rejecting the establishment and their destructive social policies. In truth, this hypothesis wouldn’t be so inappropriate, with Stormzy rapping: “Yo Theresa May, where's the money for Grenfell?” at the BRIT awards last year, mere months after the #Grime4Corbyn movement.
But this misses a crucial point about grime’s journey to the mainstream. Which is that, for the sake of radio and the access it gives to more of the country, grime changed. In his 2018 book about the genre, Dan Hancox describes the winning formula for a successful grime radio hit as “towering Ibiza electro-house synths… and simple lyrics about cars and girls and holidays” – a far cry from beats which are too strange and irregular, and lyrics of slang and swear words. D Power, grime MC and founder of EB Records and Deja Vu FM also spoke recently about the depletion of original grime records, which, according to him and many others, have been replaced by tracks where lyrics aren’t raw and “aren’t connecting with the streets” as a result.
We set out to find out if this disapproving perception of mainstream grime is rooted in solid evidence, with a distinct focus on lyrics and how they change - if they do. Applying Natural Language Processing, a data science technique we use at Human Theory to analyse words at mass scale, we compared lyrical data sets. We took Top 40 Chart entrants from grime artists over the last two years and compared the 33,129 words that formed those tracks with 34,526 words of grime tracks that have never had mainstream airtime – “real” grime so to speak. By comparing adjectives, verbs, and pronouns, we found the words most typical of each dataset and saw first-hand the shift in language for radio.
Our initial findings were quickly reached, even without the need to drill deep into the specifics of language. The overall content and narrative shifts from turf war, violence and panic, and references to scandalous, manipulating, and demanding women, deemed “bitches” - to a life where the living is better: of raising toasts in the club, dancing with dedicated and devoted “wifies”, money in the bank, and appreciation of Jesus too – for making this all happen. Road life and the fighting glory that comes with it, is swapped for a new kind of glory, where there is brilliance in parties, sun, never-had-before-riches, and success.
Turning our attention to the adjectives in the lyrics - the typically emotionally charged words used to describe things – we found a lightness to the commercialised lyrics. Words aren’t weighed down with grit or pain or hardship. Softer, dulled words are used to describe things: “real good”, “excited”, “crazy”, “sweet”, “amazing”. These lack-lustre descriptions lack the ability to communicate raw feeling, and with less expletives and more positive connotations in general, especially in relation to women who are “amazing gyals”, grittiness and grime is replaced with watered down positivity.
‘Real’ grime on the other hand uses words richer in feeling and meaning. Adjectives are monosyllabic and punchier: “sharp”, “dark”, “cops”, “raw”, “mad”, “wild”. The describing words are also absolutist, subjecting things to their most extreme state: “worst”, “terrified”, “worse”, “hardest”, “bloodiest”. All in all, there is little room for feeble or indecisive language. In fact, this resolute certainty comes through in the verbs too, with the most popularly used verb in non-commercial grime being “know”. Radio and commercial success, however, weakens the authoritative “knowingness” of rappers, with commercially successful artists instead opting for more passive behaviour, of “letting” people think what they want about them, and “arriving” or “coming” to parties or the stage instead of participating in the inner-city life that MC D Power deems essential for creating raw lyrics.
Indeed, there is an activeness in ‘real’ grime which gets replaced with passivity for radio. Instead of “making”, “selling”, “running”, “trying”, and even “hating”, commercialised lyrics are about “leaving”, “letting”, “telling”, and “coming” – something which is likely a result of the overall content of the track. Non-commercialised grime uses such active verbs in relation to a less radio-friendly narrative of drug deals and gang violence – events which also require the macho sureness and certainty signalled by their use of “know”.
However, while an overall lightness remains in both the story and language of the commercialised grime track, there are hints of the urban street-life hardship grime is rooted in, which come through in adjectives such as “young black”, “street violence”, “recessions”, and “dark times”. Commercialised grime’s repeated phrase of “wanting better” also has distinct political and socio-economic overtones, which reject the inequality that remains in society, suggesting that commercialised grime artists haven’t completely lost touch with their inner-city roots.
And yet, when compared with non-commercialised grime, there is a feeling of distance in the radio grime. Radio rappers are no longer talking from a standpoint that’s in the mix of it all – unlike their non-commercialised peers, who make distinct call-outs with politically charged words: “racist”, “soulless”, “hopeless”, “Trump”, “Theresa”, “systematic”, and “dependent”.
Tellingly, the verb “need” is used twice as much by those who haven’t hit the mainstream and felt the subsequent benefits of pay cheques and parties, compared with those who have. Tellingly, those successful rappers who are enjoying the benefits of commercial success, aren’t rapping about “need”, but instead use the verb “got”. They’ve reached peak success in their profession, and it shows in their lyrics.
With achievement and money spilling into the language of commercialised tracks, accessibility for wider audiences inevitably increases. With less content about the specific hardships of inner-city life there is less chance to alienate the mass population of the UK. It’s unsurprising then that regional-specific terms are also amiss in grime tracks for the radio. Comparing radio tracks with grime lyrics from regional artists, including Bugzy Malone, Slowthai, Eyez, and Dialect, showed a lack of terms that signalled a location that wasn’t London. These regional artists who have yet to make it mainstream aren’t afraid to include geographic terms, such as; “West Brom”, “Manchester”, and specific road names too. In addition, lyrics by regional rappers paint a different picture of reality, with more emphasis on family and their roles, including girls cooking and having babies. Money and the easier life it creates is mentioned, but due to its absence more than anything else; “broke”, “gold digging”, “push bike”.
And yet, for all the differences we found in our analysis of track lyrics, there was a similarity hard to overlook. When observing the pronouns used by both commercial and non-commercial rappers, we discovered that the individual remains at the core of any track. Regardless of radio success, an inward-looking, self-first focus remains constant, with “me” and then “I” consistently used the most by both types of artists. The focus on the self tells us something significant about the nature of the genre, which is that grime is essentially a story about yourself and your surroundings, experiences, and hopes and fears. It’s a reactive reflection of a life being lived. The purest form of lyrical poetry, and in its best form, an energy releasing monologue of your deepest feelings and thoughts.
But, it’s important to note that this insight has a distinct male bias, and ignores the female grime artists, who, significantly, haven’t been featured on mainstream radio as of yet. While their lyrics have typically female overtones of emotional hardship, including phrases such as; “pain”, “heart”, “mum”, “queen”, “heart”, “tears”, “miss you”, and “loving sweet f*cking”, there is also a violence present in their language, which aligns itself to less mainstream grime and the males that dominate it, as they use phrases such as; “guns”, “shots”, “p*ssy”, and “dead”.
And yet, even with these alignments to original grime, there remains a subtle but significant difference. Female grime is less inward-looking. Female artists like Little Simz, Lady Leshurr and Nadia Rose for example, are less likely than their male counterparts to use the pronoun “me”. Instead, their most popular pronouns are “you”, “them”, and “she”, suggesting the story they’re telling is moulded much more by the other people surrounding them, than by themselves.
Analysing the depths of language that underpin commercial, non-commercial, and female grime tracks, unearthed significant differences. If grime lyrics are inward-looking observations of lifestyles and society, it’s no wonder that there is variation across tracks on and off the radio. Ultimately, the lives we end up living are so reliant on the policies made by the ruling class, the family and gender we’re born into, and the postcode we live in – and critically acclaimed grime isn’t mainstream listenable for this very reason. Lyrics are raw and inflamed revelations of a life where social policy, gender, and postcodes have caused struggle, violence, and inequality - something which most people just aren’t willing to face on their drive to work with Capital FM.
Language can communicate the very depths of our existence to the outside world, and grime, in its original form, is dedicated to doing just that. However, when that existence transforms, from the hardship of the streets to the bright lights of Glastonbury, the lyrics transform too, as mainstream artists turn away from the grit and grime and into the aspirational glow of successful society.
Written by Casey Wright
 Hancox D, Inner City Pressure: The Story of Grime, 2018