“Sick as a pig, can you help?” asks Northampton, England-based rapper Tyron Frampton, aka Slowthai, on the last track of his acclaimed second project, TYRON. Almost exactly two years on, he sounds even more helpless and paranoid on UGLY, in an excruciating 38-minute listen that would be best visually represented by the tenebrous, twisted desolation of a David Fincher movie.
It doesn’t take long for the listener to realize that the project is not just a sequel to the fun but woozy offering of TYRON. Track 1, “Yum”, reads as a list of gradually less moralistic affirmations. The somewhat self-respecting “You were good, you were great, you’re a genius” degenerates into a one-man mob chant of “more c–e, more w–d, more Es, more trip” before an Injury Reserve-esque cacophony of glitchy tumult precedes a failed attempt for Frampton to control his breathing, in a loss of control that resembles the overflowing sensation of a panic attack, before the track abruptly ends – almost totally dichotomous to the swagger that emanates from TYRON’s opener, “45 SMOKE”.
The album’s lead singles take on a drastically altered meaning in the company of the surrounding tracklist. “Feel Good”, a boppy Friday-friendly offering accompanied by a warming music video of Frampton surprising fans in their homes, takes on a borderline sarcastic tone as it sticks out like a sore thumb in the album’s first four tracks, before Slowthai’s schizophrenic internal monologue toys with him on his drug addiction, loneliness and suicidal thoughts on the fifth, “F–k It Puppet”. If the album is to be read as a rollercoaster akin to a dizzy k-hole, “Feel Good” is the brief home-run burst of euphoria before “F–k It Puppet” drags the user kicking and screaming back down to earth. Sandwiched between the two is the utterly gut-wrenching “Never Again”, a story of teenage love, regret and heartbreak with a sudden, horrific ending to the storyline that leaves the listener with knots in their stomach and a stinging in their eyes.
The instantly addictive chord progressions of “HAPPY” make it the track most likely to gain radio traction, though don’t be fooled – typically bleak lines make up the chorus (“I would do anything for a smile… / Love’s a shill… / You made the good times feel like swinging from a rope). “UGLY”, a collaboration with Irish sensation Fontaines D.C., more than earns its title track status. “U-G-L-Y”, the song’s Sesame Street hook, audibly descends into “U-G-L-WHY” as the track moves from an eerily static beginning to a distorted, Radiohead-esque climax, topped off by a suitably hopeless post-chorus rant: “I’m sick of toying with a broken idea / I’m sick of thinking there’s a reason I’m here / We’re just puppets in a simulation”. Track 9, “Falling”, feels like the lowest point of Frampton’s psychological hellscape so far, as a suitably grating shoegaze guitar riff bleeds indistinguishably from one chord to the next, as Slowthai incoherently yells “I feel like I’m falling… / Like I’m falling through space” with a tone so heartbreakingly hopeless it feels as if the listener is watching a rocket get smaller and smaller as the oxygen in our severed spacesuit slowly drains, while we fight desperately to flail ourselves back to safety and keep our eyelids ajar, to no avail.
“Wotz Funny” momentarily switches the tone to a more familiar Slowthai sound from the artist’s “Doorman” era, in what first appears to be a nod to his fans, but phenomenally doubles up as a raging commentary on the systematic lampooning of the working class in Britain, even by the working class themselves: “It’s funny, real funny what they’ll do for a bag”. You need look no further than the popularity of The Jeremy Kyle Show, essentially a circus for the ridicule of impoverished working class families in crisis that tragically resulted in the suicide of a guest in 2019, for evidence of what Frampton is going on about.
UGLY’s penultimate offering, “Tourniquet”, arguably displays the most stellar show of musical genius on the whole project. A somber but daunting piano is accompanied by an assertive and demanding vocal delivery on the first chorus, which is slowly painted over by the refrain’s pleading screams “Break, break, break my bones / Shattered my hopes and dreams”, before Thai ends up on his knees in an antithetical tone to the song’s beginning: “I play the wound / You play the salt… / You can have everything, you can have everything”. Simultaneously, the eloquent piano descends into a clown-horror ensemble of siren-like instrumentation which serves to mock the genuflected artist as he pleads for a moment of calm.
Given the relentless intensity of the album’s second half, you could forgive the listener for being slightly bemused at the absence of a pulsating culminating track to top off the masterclass in instrumentation that leads us here. Instead, in “25% Club”, it feels like Frampton has woken up the next day and reflected on the horror of the night before, while the fear sets in that he’ll have to experience it all over again, summed up succinctly by the first verse’s final line: “And the story ends / And another begins”. A second character is revealed in whatever scene this depicts, which appears to grant him a modicum of hope, albeit in the flimsy form of glue on porcelain: “We both have to break like porcelain plates / But I got some glue so we can rebuild.” Ultimately, we’re left on a cliffhanger as to whether that rebuild is achieved – expect answers on Frampton’s next project, after some more life has been lived.