Watching American TV in a hotel room in New York, Tinie Tempah is about the last guy you might expect to run into. Before I stumbled upon the London rapper, I had to move through the usual colourful assortment of morning television hosts beaming with the kind of preternatural happiness which lets you know they’re not drinking coffee out of those mugs, the infomercials with a fat, astonishingly aged Henry Winkler telling me about why I need to get a reversed mortgage, now! and receive my free LED-lit magnifier and a plethora of the sorts of sitcoms that never make it overseas – and with good reason. Channel surfing past all these offerings finally took me to BBC America, a kind of sanitised version of the British public broadcaster, taken down a few notches on the pompous Brit scale to be palatable for an American audience, and the Graham Norton Show. The talk show, led by its ridiculous, eponymous host has historically been good for laughs but not so much for music. For that, we generally turn to the unbeatable ‘Late Night With Jools Holland’ but this particular episode, probably over two years old by now, reintroduced me to Tinie Tempah after a lengthy hiatus since the release of his ‘Disc-Overy’ debut back in late 2010.
In many ways, rap is the primary genre to really push the ideas of social progression, self-actualisation and personal growth. Scores of the OG (original gangster) rappers from the early 90s (Jay-Z, Nas, Biggie among them) have so much more to recommend their tales of rags-to-riches because they are, in fact, the products of such transformations. But in England, where the social class system has been well recognised as one of the most entrenched in modern Western democracies, making it out of the hard slog and bettering your lot in life is an even more powerful notion. ‘Wonderman’ – probably in a premature way considering it was released as part of Tinie’s debut and, despite his label’s best hopes, he couldn’t have known it was going to be the monster hit it was (6 singles, 2 BRIT awards, double platinum in the UK) – celebrates Tinie’s own transition from council housing resident to superstar in a way that feels genuine despite being produced and fine-tuned so that any hint of grime is eradicated. Every artist puts out a ‘Woah! Look how far I’ve come’ track (if you’re Drake, you put out almost two albums worth of them) but not all of them feel real. ‘Wonderman’, glossy as it is, leaves me keen to see where Tinie takes his next outing, ‘Demonstration’, due out later this year.
‘Wonderman’, released March 2011, is old by now but sounds, in a particularly Labrinthian way, new. Labrinth was Tinie Tempah’s wingman extraordinaire before he was the man behind one of my favourite songs of last year and here infuses this track, on which he handled production duties, with the same, strange sci-fi feel that underpinned his own debut, ‘Electronic Earth’. There is much about Labrinth’s production style that could flop tremendously. The whole idea of involving galactic talk and bionic excellence in a pop song when contemporary pop is so obviously removed from these concepts, veering more resolutely towards debauchery and smut that is very much of this world, is dangerous. Still, you get the sense that Labrinth kind of believes in his vision and Tinie, who did actually make it a long way off the back of this album, is of the same mind. Of course, it helps that they get the stupendously well-suited Ellie Goulding to bring that vision of human perfectibility to life as the songstress comes through sounding angelic as usual. For all the introspection and future-gazing, Tinie still has the unique capacity to enthrall with a voice (and accent) so hugely expressive you can’t mistake this for anything but BBC-worthy. ‘Wonderman’ is a reminder of a class act. Tinie can say ‘Yeahhhh’ with more enthusiasm than anyone on CNN. And that’s saying something.
Tinie Tempah – Wonderman