Unknown T’s ‘Homerton B’ was a huge breakout success in 2018; an infectious, speaker-rattling slap in the face for those doubting UK Drill’s capacity to cross over from the blocks where the sound was birthed, to carnivals, clubs and festival stages. The content was gritty, but the rapper’s crystal-clear delivery, intricately structured bars and the outrageously infectious hook made him one of the genre’s most recognisable voices.
Yet Unknown T’s next drop in February 2019 deviated from UK Drill’s blueprint thematically and sonically, linking up with Crazy Cousinz for the bubbly ‘Wifey Riddim’ sampling ‘Throwback’. He then bodied Nyge’s trap-leaning instrumental on ‘Meat’ while his guest verse on WSTRN’s ‘Medusa’ showcased smooth, dancehall-inflected vocals. This was an artist unwilling to be tied to one particular genre or sound.
Then, after performing at Wireless in July, Unknown T (real name, Daniel Lena) was arrested along with two other men, and charged with the murder of Steven Narvaez-Jara, who was stabbed to death in the early hours of New Year’s Day, 2018. He was denied bail and held on remand for seven months, before being cleared of all charges by a jury in February.
Just five months on, and resolute in his determination to get a career which was blossoming into something special back on track, he releases ‘Rise Above Hate’, a forceful feature-length debut shaped largely by the claustrophobic violence of trapping, blocks and opps, but with just enough light to point towards a way out.
The 16-track project draws heavily on UK Drill sonics, but space is created for Unknown T to flex and flow over warmer soundscapes too. The variety is often facilitated by smartly placed guest spots from the likes of M Huncho and Young T & Bugsey. The project is not saturated with features; it’s elevated by them.
‘Rise Above Hate’ can almost be divided into three sections. The ominous energy of opener ‘Steppy’ sets the tone for the first act; 6 tracks of brooding, muscular UK Drill, with nods to trap and even Brooklyn’s own burgeoning Drill scene through NYC producer 800 hertz’ masterful 808s on ‘Deh Deh’.
It is the stark lyricism of these tracks which should spark important conversations. There’s nothing glamorous about bars like “I can’t lie, being a G gets hard, I mean being a G gets tense / one day I be chillin’ with bae, next day I’m locked in a ding with chefs.” The experiences articulated are traumatic ones.
The first act culminates with ‘Fresh Home’. Unknown T navigates Hargo’s steely backdrop with details of his incarceration, “Can't believe that I'm locked with the lifers / I was on seg, not basic, segregated from all of my Niners.” His frustration is palpable here, as his indomitable self-belief, “Buss case, had to climb to the top of the ladder / I was unknown / Now I'm back on the scene as a well known rapper.”
With freedom comes a distinct change of energy. The second act of the tape finds T at his most varied sonically, and often celebratory in mood. On the Young T & Bugsey assisted ‘Main Squeeze’ he is boastful about the girl on his arm, effortlessly transitioning from rapping to singing over TSB’s Afro-laced production. While on ‘LV’ he follows Young Adz’ wavy, woozy verse with cool trap-lord braggadocios.
We circle back to UK Drill for the final act, as though T is reminding his contemporaries of the levels he can set. The personal standout here is ‘Avengers’, which feels like a sequel to V9 & KO’s excellent ‘Right or Wrong’ and sees all three Homerton Grandmasters on a track together for the first time. The Spanish strings and Oriental flutes employed by Chris Rich and R14 create a cinematic vibe and the perfect platform for each rapper to launch their verbal attacks. This is showpiece Drill, directed by Quentin Tarantino.
While the project’s guest features give Unknown T the space to explore different sounds, sometimes he simply goes it alone against alternative backdrops, with powerful results. The major keys of 5ive Beatz’ piano-led production on ‘Ambition’ closes the tape with a dose of ‘against-all-odds’ uplifting hip-hop, “They don’t know how I came, but I came with a vision / I’m comin’ for the game, that’s my main ambition.” Music is the light pointing towards a way out, or in T’s case pointing towards a way up.
Words: Robert Kazandjian
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