by Niall Walker
"Rapping, so often a swaggering statement of male bravado, is here the private testament of a closed heart beginning to open."
On the 25th June 2018 J Hus was arrested outside Westfield, Stratford. The police searched his car and found a knife, and the rapper, who three years earlier had been stabbed five times, was given a jail sentence.
Following on from that 2015 incident, he defiantly tweeted ‘five stab wounds could never stop me’, but the court heard three years later that the incident had left him with profound PTSD, and a paranoia which left him still feeling the need to stay armed.
It is a scenario which is all too familiar in the UK, where working class kids are seeing their support networks erode, and violence in their neighbourhoods increase. Most won’t be able to access psychiatric therapy in the way that Hus, reportedly, has done. Most, too, don’t have an artistic platform through which they can openly try to exorcise their demons.
Soon after his release from prison, Hus dropped ‘Daily Duppy’ on GRM Daily. It was a brooding, contemplative masterpiece, reflecting on how he tried to ‘deal with the pain don’t say nothing / if you look close see a tear dropping’. Rapping, so often a swaggering statement of male bravado, was here the private testament of a closed heart beginning to open.
This has precedence. Dave’s superb Psychodrama grapples with similar insecurities, and Stormzy has been open about his battles with depression. But no other British artist seems so saddled on two alternate worlds as J Hus. He is a performer who could sell out Brixton Academy days after having a 696 file overturned which banned him from performing in his home town. He’s released a track with Ed Sheeran that sifts through global airwaves, yet he sits in a safe house in Peterborough from fear of showing his face in East London.
He is, to put it plainly, a household name still living with the experiences shared by thousands of young people in the UK today. Many of them make up his fervent fanbase, all of whom have been waiting, impatiently, for a follow up to his 2016 debut LP Common Sense.
Let’s return to that day in 2018. Following his arrest, Hus said he hoped to be releasing his new album by August. He ended his Daily Duppy with the line ‘Just wait for my tape to release’. And yet it has been another nine months of record label wrangling - and last week’s leak - for Big Conspiracy to be released.
The title itself speaks to an artist looking over his shoulder. On Love Peace Prosperity, he asks, ‘God grant us the longevity / I live a street life and I sing a melody / They want me to go mad and lose my sanity’. Yet musically, this is an album brimming with a delicious confidence. Hus’ skill at blending afrobeats, hip hop and dancehall, with the help of producer Jae5, have carved out a distinct space in UK music today. It snarls and sways, helped on its way with collaborations with the ubiquitous Burna Boy and the amazing Jamaican singer Koffee.
And yet Big Conspiracy still has the feel of a crossroads album. Moments appear where Hus assumes the role of innovator and educator, bringing ‘knowledge to you, just like the Moors’ on ‘Helicopter’. Then on ‘Triumph’ we take a dick-metaphor journey I’m not sure anyone really wants, with references to his ‘AK-47’, ‘bazooka’ and, worryingly, his ‘9mm’.
It leaves us still wrestling with the question of what constitutes power to J Hus. On the album’s beautiful closer ‘Deeper than Rap’, he asks ‘how can you love your life when your life’s a facade?’. Yet he still seems to be struggling to break free of his own, torn between the self-diagnosis of his own weakness with a continual urge to show his strength.
Celebrating the potential and self-confidence of dispossessed communities is in the DNA of rap music, of course. But Hus has a power with words and music which elevates him beyond the need for dick-swinging machismo. He remains one of the most intriguing and gifted musicians in the UK today, and this long-awaited new material is refreshing. Hopefully, it shines the light on the road to fulfilment.
'Big Conspiracy' was released in January 2020 on Black Butter Records. Check it out on Spotify
Niall Walker is the Founder of The Radical Art Review. Reach him at radicalartreview [at] gmail.com