(ENG) Review: Novelist X Shailan // Heat
Just over a year ago, London MCs Novelist and Shailan unveiled a collaborative EP entitled Heat which, despite limited exposure, is surely amongst the UK scene’s most noteworthy releases of 2020.
Both MCs have been making their way through the British capital’s Grime scene for several years now, Novelist as part of the second generation of artists who gained exposure with the genre’s revival around 2014 and Shailan having grown up in Meridian Walk, a Tottenham estate at the heart of the movement, home to numerous influential crews and MCs such as Boy Better Know or President T.
Even though Novelist never reached poster-boy status, the Lewisham (South London) native has been active for the past ten years, and can be considered to be one of the pillars of the scene. This is, amongst other things, due to the artist’s ability to put across strong messages with his music - “Stop Killing the Mandem”, one of the tracks that helped him gain exposure, is a good example of this. This is in fact generally the case on his debut album “Novelist Guy”, certainly one of the best Grime projects to come out in the past few years which was nominated for the 2018 Mercury Prize. This being said, the MC should not be restricted to the Grime genre, as he draws his inspiration from a wide variety of sounds: for instance, the EP released prior to Heat, “Inferno”, was inspired by Memphis Horrorcore.
From left to right: Novelist and Shailan
Shailan’s discography, on the other hand, is substantially shorter to summarise, as the rapper has chosen not to open himself to much outside of his home estate. This desire to remain in a way isolated from external influences is actually in line with the mentality and principles upheld by the Tracksuit Mafia, a movement Shailan belongs to and often cites in his lyrics. Initiated by the late Lukey Maxwell, a close friend of Skepta (whose song paying homage to his friend is probably the most touching of his discography), the Tracksuit Mafia movement in essence encouraged UK MCs to get back in touch with their roots, as opposed to seeking validation from the US scene and therefore confirming to its norms and codes. Symbolically, this was expressed by wearing tracksuits rather than designer garments, thereby creating a Grime uniform of sorts, one which fully embraced their London identity.
Yeah, I used to wear Gucci / Put it all in the bin 'cause that's not me - Skepta, That's Not Me
In fact, Shailan is quite close to Skepta as both artists come from Meridian Walk in North London. The artists even collabed on Risky Road’s tune “Stay With It” along with Suspect, and the BBK MC called on Shailan for the promotion campaign of his trainers in collaboration with Nike, a pair of Air Max 97s renamed “SK Air”.
Novelist having himself worked alongside Skepta- he features on the second track of his Mercury Prize-winning album “Konnichiwa”- we can see the extent to which him and Shailan have been evolving in parallel within the same scene, even though Novelist has been considerably more active these past few years. Also noting that both artists have favoured their sense of integrity over mainstream success, the collaboration which birthed Heat appears truly organic. This seems to be an important part of the project’s conception, which was mainly produced, recorded and mixed at night in Nov’s BMW, parked in Shailan’s neighbourhood.
The result of this collaboration is a six-track long EP with a total listening time of about twenty minutes, released on the third of April 2020.
To begin with, Heat is partly inspired by the thriller of same name, which first premiered in 1995. Today remembered as a heist movie classic, this Michael Mann film featured an exceptional cast, starring Al Pacino, Robert de Niro, Val Kilmer and Nathalie Portman only to name a few. The characters’ ability to come across as authentic, the meticulousness with which each detail was incorporated and its memorable action scenes, without even mentioning the unbearable suspense which prevails, truly set Heat apart from contemporary blockbusters. This explains not only the critical acclaim it was met with at its release but also its preserved status 25 years later.
The homage paid to the film is firstly reflected in the project’s aesthetic, with the cover using the same visual codes than the thriller. Indeed, both the character font used on the film poster and the bluish lighting which can be observed in certain scenes are reproduced here.
Next, there are also similarities in the EP’s different soundscapes, for instance with the ethereal atmospheres which punctuate the project or with the synth notes which remind us of the cold and mysterious ambiance which characterised Heat’s original sound track.
Shortly before the project was released, Novelist also took the time to explain to his audience that Heat was one of his favorite films, and that the EP would contain 80s Synthwave, 90s Memphis, UK Rap and Grime influences.
Heat thus begins on an eponymous track perfectly representative of the above-mentioned elements: it encompasses an airy and mysterious atmosphere through a Novelist production, on which the two MCs retain a calm and cadenced flow. Similarly to the film, a large number of the bars delivered on this tune are quotable, as the artists insist on the mentality which sets them apart from the rest of the music industry. The emphasis is indeed placed on their will to remain authentic and on the importance of reaching their goals in an honest and understated fashion.
I don’t step in no Gazettes, tracksuit ting with nike creps (tracksuit mafia
I can tell if you’re fake or real, I can see right through don’t need no lense
I’m gettin’ money and I know who’s who/ why you want me to notice you ?
This is also an opportunity for Novelist to reference the meaning carried by the word “Heat” in Michael Mann’s thriller, which refers to the ever-present danger law enforcement represent for De Niro and his team.
When the heat comes you ain’t gonna firm nothing
Even though the intro retains a cold and mysterious tone, the majority of the project’s other tracks put forth considerably smoother ambiances. The transition towards these sounds is made with the second track, “Night and Day”, produced by Trooh Hippi, a beatmaker present on Giggs’ latest project known for his catchy tunes. Here, the track sets itself apart with its light melody paired with violins playing in the background, not only to mention Shailan’s somewhat dismal delivery. The atmosphere on this song, where we find the Meridian Walk rapper on his own, is definitely not as ominous as on “Heat” but still retains an unmistakably melancholic tone.
The remainder of the songs which make up the EP follow a similar construction, with productions ranging from lightness to melancholy on which Shailan delivers flows which bear the distinctive imprint of the hardships the rapper has gone through. The second track where the North London artist isn’t alongside Novelist (he only assumes a producer role here), “Direction”, follows a similar recipe, and is noticeably colder than the ones where Nov’ raps. This in fact distinguishes the two artists on the project: while both are characterised by their calm and laid-back attitude, the Lewisham MC demonstrates more poise- his nonchalant delivery is indeed rather linked to his sense of humility, a key value in his music.
Hence, a particularly uplifting energy can be observed on “With Us”, where it’s Novelist turn to be alone on a track. This is also the EP’s only tune for which there are visuals, which were unveiled in early February. The music video, among other things, helps exacerbate the sense of bliss “With Us” is infused with, already expressed through the South London native’s performance and the warm and airy SusTrapperazzi beat over which he raps.
We can therefore see how the tracks regrouping both artists are able to accommodate these separate ambiances, the production often serving as a bridge between the two. A prime example of this is “Myself”, where Prem, a producer alongside which Novelist has worked on numerous occasions, delivers a fast-paced, cloudy beat.
From left to right: Prem, SusTrapperazzi and Trooh Hippi
Looking at the MCs’ respective mentalities and mindsets put forth in the EP, we can see that they’re organised in a way that mirrors Novelist and Shailan’s deliveries, not only in the way they’re articulated but also in the feelings or emotions they convey.
The Tottenham rapper’s lyrics are indeed characterised by a desire to find his way and to move away from a past which keeps catching up with him: Shailan’s contentions with the law have significantly slowed him down in his progress, and the artist appears torn between his life on road on the one hand and music on the other. This appears clearly as the artist switches between bars depicting the harsh reality of London estates and the evolution to which he aspires, often without transition.
And we don’t aim at arms and legs, so the doc can’t fix that mess - Heat
Making money off music now, but I still gotta move this weight / from London town where the sky is grey, but I still find my way – Night and Day
Still get involved and do the most, don’t need no shank I’m lucid / Bro told me stop all your madness focus on your music – Night and Day
I’ve been tryna find my way, can’t be sitting still - Myself
The difficulties the rapper has had to overcome in order to try and free himself from his past bring out a sense of weariness in him, which the listener can sense through some of his more melancholic verses, as already seen in the above. It can however be noted that this idea is offset by how much Shailan values hard work, and the artists insists on his relentlessness on numerous occasions.
All I know is putting in work, I ain’t got time to chill - Myself
In contrast, Novelist adopts a significantly more self-assured tone, and seems to have found a balance of sorts. Indeed, whether it be in his lyrics on in the various interviews he’s given, the artist appears deeply confident, however without coming across as lacking humility. Always reflecting on the impact his music can carry, the South London native values inspiring people with similar paths to his to evolve away from certain situations, which he insists on during his recent participation to the “Who We Be Talks” podcast. On Heat, this idea is expressed for instance by a desire to put an end to the grim cycle of gang violence.
I was thinking about taking this n*****’s life, then I had to stop myself / Because, I wouldn’t want to get dropped myself - Myself
Got money, and I got respect for n****s that wanted me dead – With Us
This being said, Novelist went through painful situations just like Shailan, and does not refrain from mentioning some of his life’s darkest events, like for instance losing people close to him.
The MC’s ability to maintain a certain distance from the sobering reality of neighbourhoods like the on which saw him grow up is partly due to his faith, an important element of his music. This provides him with a clear set of values which hold a place of key significance in his mentality. Even though this is a topic less touched upon than on his debut album for instance, it is at times mentioned in the EP.
But I don’t want to carry that guilt inside when I answer to God myself / But if I gotta answer to God myself, Imma to God myself (I will) – Myself
Even though the two artists express their feelings in quite different ways on Heat, they still share a certain mindset: their will to remain self-sufficient and authentic is a key element of their music, and the importance of these two notions is hammered home throughout the EP.
Still catch me chillin’ in ends, with my guys breakin’ bread – Shailan, Heat
They told me that they had my back ‘til I clocked I got myself – Novelist, Myself
It was just me and I, can’t forget myself – Shailan, Myself
Could’ve signed from time but I wanna see most cause why would I rob myself? (some mils) - Novelist, Myself
Moreover, it can be interesting to note that Novelist has set up his own label in 2016, “MMYEAH RECORDS”. On this occasion, the MC had explained to NME how much working within his own structure was important to him, not only because of the freedom this would incur but also because of his desire to provide those around him with opportunities. Shailan of course values independence just as much, as shown by his belonging to the Tracksuit Mafia movement.
The EP comes to an end with “30 Seconds Flat”, a smooth and airy ending where, except for the intro, either artist simply repeats a single phrase, “Tracksuit Mafia” for Shailan and “Rollin’ by myself ‘cause I don’t trust nobody else” for Nov’. The beat here is once more courtesy of the South London native, and, complemented with flute notes, contributes to the sense of tranquility which characterises this track. Ultimately, the simplicity of this outro concludes Heat seamlessly.
All in all, Heat is an EP which, despite having somewhat slipped under the radar, is successful on a variety of aspects. By drawing their inspiration from Michael Mann’s work, Novelist and Shailan have delivered a deeply coherent project- its concise format is truly immersive, and plunges us in a cold and airy universe from the outset, thus making its listening impressively smooth. This homogeneity also results from the quality of the chosen productions, and we can only admire Trooh Hippi, Sus Trapperazi, Prem and Nov’s work as they manage to give the project a distinctive aesthetic while avoiding repetition.
The EP also sets itself apart as a remarkably effective collaboration, Novelist and Shailan being perfectly complementary throughout. With Shailan, who retains a cold and melancholic tone, touching upon the toughness of leaving the harsh reality of London estates behind in order to pursue a career in music and Novelist, whose wisdom and energy bring warmth to the project, Heat is indeed perfectly balanced. This also results from the two MCs sharing a certain mindset with authenticity, humility and independence being explicitly put forward throughout the project.
Focusing on Shailan, Heat simply makes us regret how quick his discography is to sum up- he truly sets himself apart here, whether it be in his demeanor, lyrics or flows. Indeed, since Heat was unveiled, the rapper could only be found on a few collaborations with Hustla C, and it doesn’t seem like any solo project of his will be released in the foreseeable future.
Either way, listening to such a project can only makes one wish for the success of the artists behind its conception, as the two MCs have managed to deliver an EP of truly impressive quality. This is not only due to the organic collaboration which birthed it, but also thanks to its specific artistic direction. In fact, this applies to most EPs unveiled by Novelist since “Novelist Guy”, which in essence follow the same recipe, and are the proof of the MC’s versatility. From Grime, which allowed him to gain exposure, with “Reload King” to the instrumental EP “Quantum Leap” (for which the vinyl was released in collaboration with Billionaire Boys Club), the Lewisham native has demonstrated incredible ease to switch from one genre to the other while managing not to lose touch with his own identity.
Not keeping as low a profile as his Meridian Walk companion, Novelist has also recently announced the upcoming release of his second album, which we hope will consolidate his status as a pillar of the London scene. Even though, as explained in the above, a Shailan release is far less likely at the moment, we can only hope that both artists will encounter the success the deserve in the future, Heat being the explicit proof of their respective talents.