Novelist’s debut album has been nearly five years in the making. In the scheme of the UK’s current rap explosion, that’s a long time. Since he was nominated for Best Breakthrough at the MOBOs in 2014, Stormzy and J Hus have become superstars, Giggs has become a national treasure and grime has given way to afroswing and UK drill. To put it bluntly, Novelist has been moving slow in a world that moves very, very fast.
Novelist has never been one to do things at other people’s pace, or in other people’s ways. While his path to fame started pretty straight-forward, clashing with Wiley’s younger brother Cadell for the Who’s Da Boss DVD and doing the rounds on pirate radio he soon broke away from grime’s emergent new school. In 2015, he teamed up with experimental producer Mumdance for a pair of singles on XL and Rinse, that hinted at his latent experimentation and independent-mindedness. Next came ‘Endz’ and ‘Street Politician’, two self-produced tracks that saw him pay tribute to grime’s Channel U days and send for David Cameron, building on Novelist’s reputation as one of London’s most talented young MCs. By the start of 2016 a consensus had formed, Novelist was next up. The only problem was, he didn’t want it yet.
“At that time, when I was nominated, it was cool but I didn’t plan on making an album then, so I didn’t. I’ve just been moving at my own pace and not putting out music for the sake of the buzz” he explains as we sit down to talk about his upcoming debut Novelist Guy. “People want to just keep going and just blow up. I don’t even know why people think that’s the way you should go. For me, my fans are with me, the whole way. There’s always going to be onlookers. Normally the onlookers are the ones that are like ‘where’s Nov been blah blah blah’ but my fans know everything that’s been going on anyway so I’ve just been catering to them.”
This Friday his fans’ patience is set to pay off as he finally releases his debut album Novelist Guy. Written, performed and produced entirely by Novelist himself, with a little mixing help from the studio engineers at Abbey Road (I don’t know for sure whether or not there was a discussion about using an image of Novelist walking across the zebra crossing as the album art, but I like to assume there was), it’s an uncompromised statement of intent, showcasing the Lewisham MC on head-rattling form. He’s even releasing it on his own label, MMM Yeh Recordings, named after his go-to ab-lib. “I don’t make music for the mass, it would be cool if the mass enjoyed it” he shrugs “but I don’t make music for them.”
At fifteen tracks long and with no features, Novelist Guy is a big departure from the recent canon of grime albums stacked with collaborations and primed for Spotify plays. Whereas the likes of Skepta, Stormzy and Kano called on their friends for their albums, including Novelist himself, Nov has maintained something of a separation between his music and the current in-crowd of MCs. “I’m cool with most artists, I see them, but my art is so close my heart that I wouldn’t just put anyone on it just because I know them or because they do music as well” he explains. “I don’t mind being involved, I’m just not forcing it. I don’t go places to be seen if I haven’t been invited or I don’t have any business there. If someone else makes music that’s similar to mine, in the UK or the US or in Japan, and we get mentioned in the same sentence I’m not going to complain about that. I want everyone to do well, [but] I’m happy doing well alone as well as with people.”
If grime and UK rap are to 2018 what UK Garage was to 1999, having leaked out of the clubs and into the mainstream, then Novelist is his generation’s Mike Skinner, using its framework to create something new and unique. The similarities run deeper than you’d think. As well as tweaking a much-loved genre to their own needs, both Novelist and Skinner have a penchant for using the every day as their inspiration, both get labelled as political artists for talking about issues that affect them and their communities in their work and both reject that label, preferring a more nuanced view.
In Novelist’s case, it’s easy to understand why much of the media has been keen to hail him, alongside JME and Stormzy, as grime’s political saviour. As a teenage he ran for Deputy Young Mayor of Lewisham, he walked the streets with thousands of others at a Black Lives Matter march in London last year and he was among a crop of UK artists backing Jeremy Corbyn at the last General Election. “People think I’m some politics guy,” he laughs, a hint of frustration in his voice “it’s funny when you look at it. I wasn’t even Grime4Corbyn, I was just on the straight like ‘I support Jeremy Corbyn, I support Corbyn,” he emphasises, “if you guys do as well that’s cool but I’m saying: ‘I’m Novelist and I support him’. That’s all I had to say at the time.” He pauses for a minute before mentioning the David Cameron-sampling ‘Street Politician’, laughing “obviously the dissing David Cameron stuff was just jokes. You know what I’m saying?”
As we go on he makes clear that he doesn’t have “a passion for politics”. If his work touches on subjects that journalists or listeners consider political it’s just because those issues are touching his life. The most ‘political’ moment on Novelist Guy is ‘Stop Killing the Mandem’. Titled after a sign Novelist painted for the aforementioned Black Lives Matter march, the song’s demands are simple, whoever you are, whatever you do, stop killing the mandem. “That tune is not just about police, it’s about mandem to mandem as well” Novelist explains. “Just stop killing the mandem, everyone. It was a Black Lives Matter march when there was a picture of me with a banner that I spray painted on that day, I didn’t go there as Novelist, I went there as a black boy, as a person who cares about that. I thought to myself, people already know what the message is so I may as well turn it into a song.”
It’s a moment that’s bound to stand out when the album is released this week, even more so thanks to a renewed focus on violence in the capital. However, while the track is in part a condemnation of the violence on London’s streets, its main focus is with the police and the systemic racism that still affects black people, particularly young black men, every day. “Everyone’s lives matter but the people who are being affected this way are people who look like me, it could have been me,” Novelist says, soberingly casual. “Even when I was in LA recently, I was thinking I could be in that same predicament just because of how I look. Even though I’m a person from the UK, I could get gun downed by the police for them thinking I’m someone I’m not.”
Tracksuit Billionaire Boys Club Trainers Nike
Tracksuit Billionaire Boys Club
Tracksuit Billionaire Boys Club
It’s important to note that Novelist Guy is not an album about politics, it’s an album about being Novelist. As well as tracks like ‘Stop Killing The Mandem’ there are candid moments where he raps about his faith, tunes like ‘Man better Jump’ which are precision engineered for the rave and ambitious, game-conquering anthems like ‘Whole 9 Yards’. All this without mentioning the varied and innovative production that serves as the record’s backbone.
As we talk about his religion and his decision to talk it on record properly for the first time, Novelist says something that unintentionally sums up his approach to music and his debut album perfectly. “Some people will get with it and some people won’t like it, that’s for them but at least they’ve been given the option to think ‘ah I didn’t look at it from that perspective’ or ‘nah I’m not with that’” he says, calmly concluding “everyone’s got their own free will.”