Wiley albums are always worth getting stuck into. The best, like his latest ‘Snakes & Ladders’, see him at full flow – the bit between his teeth, a point to prove: proud, resilient and creative. The worst, document a frustrated genius – an artist caught between making the music he loves and making a living. Not that it’s ever stopped him doing things on his own terms – as his own leaking of 2013’s ‘The Ascent’ via social media testifies, but the constant back-and-forth and overriding question of overground or underground is one that’s punctuated Wiley’s career since the release of debut album ‘Treddin’ On Thin Ice’ in 2004. His is a unique story.
Context aside, ‘Snakes & Ladders’ is as fiercely independent in make-up as a post-major Wiley album could be expected to sound. Lead album single ‘On A Level’ was produced by Skepta and the video, also directed by Skepta, features Novelist and Stormzy – two of Grime’s potential future stars – alongside scene vets Jammer, Giggs and the rest of Boy Better Know. There’s also space for ‘Step 21’, a play on the 20 Step Grime freestyle series he put out for free over the course of 2013, as well as features from JME, Stormzy and Solo 45. In short, it’s Wiley back on his own terms.
As ever, colloquial (and at times hilarious) lyricism also plays it’s part in making ‘Snakes & Ladders’ such an engaging listen – ‘I’m a local, see me at the local’ & ‘I share bread and water like Jesus Christ // I know myself well like three blind mice’ being just two quick examples. Although trivial, his wordplay and ability to contrast wildly different concepts has become a true Wiley hallmark and indeed, enough for JME to refer to him as a ‘national treasure’ on the greazy ‘From The Outside’.
That’s not to say that there aren’t more serious undertones at work on the album either though. Sonically, it’s a welcome trip back to 140bpm but as we touched on before, Wiley also acknowledges the future of Grime, as well as the past and present. It’s an album that joins the dots between old and new in a way that others can’t – where else could you find production credits from a new school producer like Masro sitting alongside those of someone like Maniac on the same LP? Whether or not he’s reassumed his position as the genre’s unofficial Godfather is open to opinion, but there’s something certainly comforting about having Wiley back at the top of the pile, working as Grime’s key unitive force.
On a purely musical level though, ‘Snakes & Ladders’ doesn’t quite reach the heights of 2007 effort ‘Playtime Is Over’, (in our opinion his best), but it’s certainly a welcome reminder of how lucky we are to have Wiley spearheading underground UK music. ‘On A Level’ is most definitely a standout, as is the lucidly simplistic ‘Badman’ – think old school, practice hours flow – whilst 808 banger ‘Busy’ taps into Giggs’ rap aesthetic, but the real triumph lies in the album as a whole. It feels energised and real and to be honest, listens like a 50/50 split between well-balanced nostalgia and a big fuck off to the industry.
‘Snakes & Ladders’ is out now on Big Dada. You can buy it here.