There’s something remarkably human about Jesse James Solomon. Even though he rolls with a crowd that includes King Krule, Rejjie Snow and Jamie Isaac, he doesn’t talk with the conviction go a man considered to be part of a group akin to South London’s hip-hop rat pack. It was never the money nor the headlines that drove Jesse to music, and he doesn’t fall into that crowd of musicians looking for the next big hit. For him, music comes more like an exercise in craft and expression. “I want to be respected” he asserts, “respected for my pen game.”
We’re living in the halcyon days of grime, and we’ve all heard stories archetypal young MCs, “bursting on to the scene”: energetic, lyrically adept, effortlessly delivering sharp-tongued exuberance over 140 beats per minute. We find Jesse in South East London, close but disconnected from all that; a rapper with more in common with T.S. Eliot than Elf Kid. His tale begins as a promising young footballer who, unable to fulfil his sporting potential due to a long-term injury, uses music and lyrics to revel in his own disillusionment, as he navigates through London’s modern Waste Land. “Some people might describe me more like a poet,” he says, but in typically blasé fashion, goes on to say he see’s himself as; “A young lad from South East London, who’s just trying to paint pictures, you know what I’m saying? Paint pictures of my environment.”
Since making his first real marks on the scene a few years back, Jesse’s output has been stuttering. The whiskey-soaked soundscapes of his jazz-infused instrumentals and his smooth, almost apathetic flow, have always been that of an artist unwilling to succumb to urgency. He released his debut EP ‘Jesse From SE’ in 2014, and in the same year stepped out to perform a couple of then unreleased tracks at RatKing’s Boiler Room set in London. At that time he was being touted as one of a trio of promising young rappers, flying the flag for British boom bap. While Rejjie Snow and fellow South Londoner, Loyle Carner, continued to tour and release records, Jesse retreated. “I was recording” Jesse reflects, “but at the same time I was just trying to figure out what my goals were, trying to figure out what I why I was doing it.” Other than a handful of singles and guest verses, all went quiet, only adding to the mystery of this retiring 20-year-old wordsmith.
Rather than continue to release music for the sake of it, he did what most young people try to avoid: faced with existential thoughts, he went looking. The words “Searching, but searching for what? Searching for the purpose, the words and the worth that we lost,” rolled effortlessly from his tongue in a verse on Nigerian-born singer Victor Taiwò’s 2014 single, ‘Digital Kids,’ explaining away his recent period of absence.
Growing up, Jesse was surrounded by jazz and soul, courtesy of his parents’ record collection, which is partly why his music is free of typical rap conceit. “Not listening to a lot of rap, when you’re a rap artist, I think is a good thing” he professes. “Your style and your palette needs to be influenced more by what’s going on around you.” This idea comes through in all his work, full of immersive, echo-heavy breaks that set the tone for his dour but effortlessly witty bars that confront his own insecurities as well as the collective lack of optimisms amongst his peers. This isn’t to say that Jesse’s music is sad and without hope, it’s simply a reflection of the times we live in.
In the last two months, though, with the surprise releases of singles ‘Scumbag // Barriers’ and ‘GOAT TALK’, Jesse talks like a man refreshed. “I wanted to start the year good,” he says, and although 2017 comes with uncertainty in abundance, he’s ready to embrace it. “It’s just the next step, my sound is still evolving, it’s the next part of my thing - I dunno man, I can’t tell you exactly what I’m doing.”
With a lot being said about a lack of respect for females at rap shows, Jesse’s next show - a follow up to his triumphant, sell-out return to the stage at Omeara last month - is a ‘ladies-only’ affair at The Scotch on Valentine’s Day with Princess Nokia as a special guest. “It’s a bit of fun really,” he says with an almost audible grin. “It’s not too deep, just for girls that might not have a Valentine’s date. They can just come to the show and have some fun really. It was a funny idea at first and my manager was just like ‘Fuck it let’s do it.’ So we got a flyer made last week and found a venue and it’s happening.”
If anything sums up Jesse’s approach, it’s this show. Doing something different, something fun, takes precedence over keeping promoters happy. It was the ‘Fuck it, why not?’ attitude that got him into music, not the promise of fame and fortune. “I just want to make an album that kids live by,” he reveals, leaving a taste of ambition. “10 years from when its released, people are looking back like it’s a classic.” We’re right to expect big things from Lionel Jesse, but he’s playing the game at his own pace. He applies his deft touch only when it feels right, and what he lacks in constant, aimless productivity, he makes up for in unrealised genius. He’ll make a classic, but don’t expect it to be instant.
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Words: Robbie Russell
Catch Jesse James Solomon at Scotch Of St. James, London tomorrow (February 14th).
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