I’ll admit freely that I hadn’t paid too much attention to what was going on in Bonkaz’ musical output until recently. Like everyone else, I heard We Run the Block when the hype was loudest, back in the early part of 2015, and I thought it was a good beat and a decent tune, but nothing that was going to set the world on fire. That said, I remember being impressed with the idea that the whole thing was brought through the underground before any official release was made, and the sheer number of people who knew all of the lyrics in the live versions posted online. As that faded, however, it didn’t make enough of an impression on me to keep an eye on the young Londoner, and he too drifted from my consciousness.
Another free confession you’ll get from me is that Mike Skinner is one of my all-time heroes. I’ve been known to make huge claims about him, the pre-eminent example of which is that he’s ‘the most important British poet of the 21st Century.’ Some people agree, most don’t. Either way, since since he shut down The Streets, I’ve dedicated more time than most to finding someone to fit the huge Skinner-shaped hole in my musical landscape. What had come closest for me was Real Lies’ North Circular, a synthesised string-based symphony with a spoken-word depiction of love lost that made all the right noises, and still does. Real Lies are great, their mix of choruses reminiscent of the once-great Hard-Fi and spoken lyricism instil a deep nostalgic feeling of childhood flashing by.
But Skinner was a trailblazer too, imposing his brand of poetic lyricism on a garage scene which had seen nothing of his ilk ever before. The most obvious comparison of where the garage scene was when The Streets marauded in, is to grime’s ‘second wave’ that’s currently making itself impossible to ignore. To draw a blunt comparison, no-one has made any sort of Skinner-esque impact on today’s grime scene, drawing from the musical inspiration whilst finding a contemplative, lyrically wistful way to make it feel more personal.
Whilst the likes of Kano and Akala had threatened to place a more meditative approach on the grime scene, neither of them managed to quite hold onto it whilst stepping up to the big time. Akala is doubtless one of the most pre-eminent wordsmiths in the country, but he could never be considered to be an introspective one, and whilst Kano is a master of a hook, March’s Hail, which briefly samples Tempa T, marched him right back into the heavy heartlands of the grime jungle. Both men have produced differing directions in their careers, but nothing as monumentally thoughtful and slowed as Bonkaz’ ‘Forgive Me When I’m Famous EP’.
The musical backdrop is unquestionably influenced by grime and trap, with its military snare rolls underlying Bonkaz’ south London drawl, but the meshing with guitar-based melody smacks more of J. Cole than BBK, and the mesmeric layering of chorus could have come straight out of The Weeknd’s latest album, especially towards the end of Sequel. And then there’s the lyricism, which is what makes Bonkaz’ sound unmistakably British – the homage to Mike Skinner is only a doff of the cap, but it’s the moments of painfully self-reflective emotion that really emphasise the idea that there is a new poetic trailblazer emerging in a grime scene, which hasn’t seen anyone quite like this before.
Bonkaz has shown he can do the dirty work and go blow-for-blow with his grime heavyweight friends, such as Stormzy on Krept & Konan’s Don’t Waste My Time Remix, and that he can do the underground anthems like We Run the Block. But where he excels is in his lyrical wordplay, in his knack for creating a story and for stepping away from what everyone else is doing.
A meander through his SoundCloud reveals an experimental mix of sounds, playing with effects, not settling for one sound and sticking with it but trying things that some in the scene wouldn’t dream of. Like he states on King Mike Skinner, ‘Man said I ain’t got bars ‘cos I sing.’ In retrospect, it’s pitiful to try and knock him off his perch by claiming that the hook devalues the rap and anyone that wants to level the suggestion that you can’t sing and rap on your own tracks would do well to go and see Kano about that, who incidentally, Bonkaz is playing alongside at a sold out show at Heaven in November.
It’s early days, but if Bonkaz is going about setting himself up as grime’s answer to King Mike Skinner, he’s going about it the right way. There’s going to be experiments on the way, and if Bonkaz has to release tunes such as We Run the Block in order to cement himself in the grime pantheon, then so be it. But his lyrical poeticism takes him out of the mire, and puts him in a unique position to dish out some social commentary in a genre that prides itself on the depiction of everyday living. That unique combination of poet, commentator and showman, as any Skinner fan will tell you, is a very special position indeed.
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Cover photo by Loana