Sway: Level Up? Or a big step down?
24 Feb 2012
As an MC, I can’t fault Sway. The MC has created track after track of top-quality lyricism, perfectly selected beats and first rate production. The wordsmith is on a level that other rappers have struggled to compete with; his skills have always been in a league of their own what with his super-fast yet flawless spitting, the intelligent wit articulated through his rhymes, his flow and delivery being often imitated but never outdone, and his subject matter always varied and interesting. Put in concise terms, an MC with such qualities that Sway possesses is a rarity.
Sway’s new release, a collaboration with renowned dubstep producer Flux Pavilion entitled Level Up, has been featured on Zane Lowe’s weekly radio review, Hottest Record, and has gained recognition from BBC 1Xtra DJ Mistajam. Sway describes the track as “[being] about winning, elevation, going from one stage in your life to a better one”. It has met rave reviews from critics, claiming that Sway will finally be acknowledged by the mainstream, just like the rest of the UK’s MCs-turned-popstars that are publicised all over television, in clubs and on the radio.
As it goes, I will need to include a disclaimer to clarify my views before I express them, so here it is:
I am in no way against any MC attempting to become accepted into the mainstream, and in turn, transforming into a ‘popstar’. My all-time favourite artist is Eminem – probably one of the most mainstream rappers alive. However, what I do object to is artists reducing the quality of their lyrics and subject matter, and, in effect, ‘dumbing down’ their own material in order to appeal to the majority of radio, television and club listeners.
I mention Eminem because he is an example of a rapper who has managed to gain ‘popstar status’, yet has preserved the intellect and aptitude within his lyrics that makes him one of the greatest MCs alive. One can pick any of Eminem’s ‘hits’ and still select numerous lyrics overflowing with skill and dexterity, yet upholding the element of entertainment and amusement that makes him such a popular artist among pop-loving teens and genuine hip-hop heads alike. Lupe Fiasco’s Dumb It Down explains my disclaimer perfectly.
Back to Level Up. The first line introduces Sway as being “all over the radio and back up in the raves again”, – a reference to his top twenty hit Still Speedin’, released December 2011. The first verse is lyrically poor, when considering the usual standards of the rapper. A few mediocre attempts at weather-related wordplay and some second-rate references to the upcoming Olympics linked in with ideas of being a gold medallist in terms of rapping, Sway fails to impress me not only lyrically, but in terms of flow and delivery as well. It seems as though he has lost all his usual dynamism and vitality, and just simulates any other rapper you may hear in the charts. The track doesn’t develop or advance; it is a steady anti-climax.
Perhaps less importantly, but also to be noticed, Sway has even changed his appearance. He is wearing a V-neck t-shirt on the press images for Level Up, and now dons a pair of Ray-Ban style lenseless ‘geek’ glasses, recently made popular among the urban music scene by Tinie Tempah. Not as drastic as lowering the standards of your own craft I know, yet still something to be recognised as ‘following the crowd’; an attempt to look trendy yet still amicable to males, and to be seen as more sexually appealing by females.
I have no issue with MCs changing their image, but Sway wearing geek glasses? Really? Maybe I’m being trivial but as an artist I have admired since a young teenager and one of the first MCs that got me into UK hip-hop, this effort to simulate the rest of the ‘urban popstars’ in the country has left me feeling frustrated.
Take Tinie Tempah: he started off as lyrically nondescript and has always remained mediocre. He makes good songs, but he has never been an MC, so his popstar status doesn’t bother me because he never undermined his own work in order to reach popstar status. Sway, however, has purposefully weakened his own ability in order to appeal, and that is where my issue lies. If Sway said that he sincerely thought that Level Up is as lyrically skilled as Jason Waste, Products, F UR X or any of his previous tracks, I frankly wouldn’t be able to take him seriously. I would love to hear anyone who disagrees with me on this.
I am disappointed and annoyed that my favourite UK based MC has felt it necessary to lower his poetic quality to the standards we hear in Level Up. Still Speedin’ is proof that he can make radio and club friendly tracks, gain nationwide recognition and still maintain his lyrical excellence and unique, methodical flow. I know that Sway is an MC of outstanding quality, and both musically and technically talented enough to produce first-rate releases that will appeal to both the mainstream people listening for a good beat and innocuous vocals, and the fans of exceptional flow, delivery and lyrics. I just wish that he has the same faith in himself.