Of all the artists nominated for this year’s Mercury Prize, few have had a bigger year than J Hus. Already a superstar in the streets of London, the release of his debut album Common Sense made J Hus an instant icon across the UK.
If you’ve been outside at night during the four months since the album’s release, you’ll have seen first-hand how universal the UK’s love for Hus is right now. At the BBK Takeover last month I met a man who’d driven overnight from Cardiff to see J Hus live for the first time. This man, let’s call him Tom, had never even heard of J Hus until he picked up a copy of Common Sense in his local HMV as part of a 2 for £15 deal two months earlier. Jump forward a few hours, and I spy Tom again, front and centre, shouting every lyric back at the Bouff Daddy himself, definitively gassed.
For years now the Mercury has languished in relative irrelevance. While it’s undoubtedly still the most prestigious award in British music, it’s come to represent a certain approach to pop music; one that all too often errs on the side of snobbery. To be a Mercury artist is to have reached a certain level of acceptance within the alternative music world establishment. It’s an establishment synonymous with the likes of NME, DIY and BBC Radio 6, all quality (or formerly quality in the NME’s case) institutions, but ones that lean towards the white indie market and have often been slow to champion British rap music.
There are exceptions of course (see Mary Anne Hobbes’ entire career), and it shouldn’t be forgotten that over the years the Mercury has been given to the likes of Dizzee Rascal, Speech Debelle, Young Fathers and Skepta. However, the number of rap artists that have been nominated for the prize in the last decade still pales in comparison to the number of indie and alternative acts shortlisted. A victory for Common Sense and J Hus would be the antidote to this. Common Sense is the first full-length album to emerge from the UK’s upstart afro-swing/trap/grime/rap movement. It’s a genre of music so new that it hasn’t even really had time to develop a name yet and one that’s home to some of most exciting new talent in the country.
While grime albums like Stormzy’s Gang Signs and Prayer have been vital in spreading the sound of British rap outside of London and the UK, J Hus’s debut marked the start of what’s coming next. Nearly three years into grime’s so-called comeback the landscape of British music has evolved, and the Mercury’s should recognise that.
Context aside and the album is as sonically impressive as any other on the list and is by far the most dynamic rap album nominated this year. Jae5’s production throughout is textured and extravagant; trumpets blare and snares crack, infectious basslines carrying the listener from track to track. Just take the album’s title track, a theatrical opening statement that begins with a flurry of strings and soon morphs into a big-band backed anthem.
Hus comes through with banger after banger, the braggadocio of ‘Bouff Daddy’ gives way to the menacing ‘Clartin’ showcasing two very different sides of him in the space of eight minutes. ‘Did You See’ and ‘Fisherman’ serve as self-celebrations and crowd pleasers, together forming as the unofficial soundtrack to summer 2017. Meanwhile ‘Spirit’ is the album’s underdog moment, Hus championing the graft it’s taken for him to go from having his shows shut down by the police to being nominated for a Mercury Prize.
The Mercury Prize is a celebration of cutting edge, underground and alternative music. On Common Sense J Hus ticks all three boxes and manages to transcend them, taking a niche genre in its infancy worldwide without compromising his sound. Many of the shortlisted artists this year are worthy of the prize, but only a victory for J Hus would make the Mercury’s radical again.
The Mercury Prize winner is revealed tonight. The BBC Four show will start at 9 pm featuring performances from the artists and the live winners announcement.