On Made In The Manor, his fifth album, East London emcee Kano weaves a number of distinct thematic threads into a vivid, vital whole.
Much analysis of this record will undoubtedly focus on its “realism”, or “grittiness”, ascribing a social-realist intent to Kano's tales of working-class black life in East London. But that would not do the lyrical content here justice. In fact, there's an almost magical-realist quality to much of the writing. The titular "manor" is evoked as a kind of nostalgic, contradictory dream space, frozen in time as a snapshot of a particular point in Kano's childhood and adolescence, but also penetrated by the influences of past and future. It's somewhere Kano is obviously profoundly attached to but simultaneously pulling away from — “don't get stuck here”, he warns the manor's “concreted souls”, in an almost spoken-word-esque interlude on 'Seashells In The East'.
This album is vastly more complex than the kind of basic, “life-in-the-streets-was-tough”-type storytelling register one might be tempted to impose on it. There's a wistful, melancholic character to many of the reminiscences, as Kano acknowledges that his success and celebrity have fundamentally altered his relationship to that world and those that populate it.
Kano, who has always been preoccupied with the social dynamics of working-class East London, has attempted this kind of world building before, on 2007's London Town. It didn't quite work then; that record was messy and confused. On Made In The Manor, he gets it right. Blur's Damon Albarn, who featured on London Town's 'Feel Free', is back on Made In The Manor, featuring on 'Deep Blues', but with his voice so soaked in filters and effects as to be almost unrecognisable, as if to announce that the lessons of 2007 have been learnt, and mistakes rectified.
Albarn's presence, at least, lets us know this isn't a genre record in a narrow sense, but this album does "belong", if one can speak of belonging in this context, to one musical genre, or movement, more than others: grime. That isn't immediately apparent, as Kano's style often marks him out as more of a "rapper" than a grime emcee. Many of the tracks on Made In The Manor have Kano rapping in cadences other than grime's traditional double-time, rapid-fire flow. Nevertheless, grime is clearly Kano's artistic milieu. Features from Wiley, the widely acknowledged "godfather of grime", fellow grime pioneer JME, and Giggs (whose music, like Kano's, straddles grime and hip-hop) root the album in that milieu, and one of the themes here is the musical and cultural development of grime — a uniquely black-British music that synthesises elements of sound-system culture and its offshoots (jungle, drum and bass, bashment, etc.) with hip-hop to create an entirely new form. "Wiley was Quincy and Michael was Dylan", Kano puts it on 'New Banger', comparing Wiley to the pioneering producer Quincy Jones, who shaped Michael Jackson's career, and Dizzee Rascal (aka Dylan Mills), Wiley's sometime protégé, to Jackson himself.
Made In The Manor arrives in the midst of an important moment for grime, with artists like Stormzy and Skepta, JME's brother, now achieving mass, and commercial, success, in both Britain and America, without making the kind of artistic compromises Dizzee Rascal had to make to really break the charts: Boy In Da Corner won him the Mercury Prize in 2003, but his first No. 1s were the entertaining but trashy 'Dance Wiv Me', 'Bonkers', and 'Holiday'.
Grime now seems more confident in its own identity, and Made In The Manor acts as a kind of musical-historical map of some of the social and cultural influences that developed it up to its current point. The sampling of Tempa T's 'Next Hype' on the album's opening track is a clear signal of that, acknowledging a track that, perhaps more than any other, typifies grime's raw phonic and lyrical aggression, but which also, in many ways, was an outrider for its emergence from the underground.
Many of Kano's references are profoundly rooted, and assert a kind of London-patriotism. At points he establishes himself in dynamic tension with the American influences that have acted on black British music: in the refrain of 'This England', a track which begins with a barrage of traditional, almost clichéd, working-class East London motifs, including the Krays, jellied eels, flat caps, and pie and mash, Kano raps, "back when Lethal Bizzle was Lethal B, this is how we used to dun the dance in East", referencing Eminem's similar formulation on 2000's 'Drug Ballad' ("back when Mark Wahlberg was Marky Mark / this is how we used to make the party start").
Lines like "I be back in East with the Gs / That ain't no gangsters, mate, that's the guv'nors" (on 'Hail') seemingly adopt the lexical register of black urban American music, only to immediately repurpose it. Kano's recollections of his family being "the first blacks in the Canning Town flats"; or to weekends spent at Newham Leisure Centre; or to "the classroom of free school dinners / Were space invaders and wagon wheelers", anchor his writing in a specific, black-British, East London, working-class experience. But like much great art, even when it is rooted in specific experience, it takes it audience inside its world.
Kano repeatedly insists he isn't looking for "mass appeal", and that he's not making club bangers ("play this on the way to the club and not in it", as he raps on 'Endz'). His artistic ambitions clearly extend way beyond that, but this record does have mass appeal, as evidenced, at least partially; by its top 10 chart performance; it is intensely listenable, and has exceptional replay value. Its production and beat composition are not, perhaps, pushing any boundaries, but it has a phonic diversity and range which keeps it consistently interesting.
There is far too much going on in this album to do it justice in a short review. It is a "concept album", but that term, so often used to describe something that is in fact gimmicky or contrived, almost demeans Made In The Manor. It confirms Kano as one of the most articulate and gifted emcees of his generation.
The conversation about the greatest British albums of all time tend to involve Revolver, Sticky Fingers, London Calling, perhaps Arctic Monkey's Whatever People Say I Am... (all albums, incidentally, which were produced by white artists but which, in different ways, and with varying degrees of appropriation and acknowledgement, draw on and are influenced by black music and black experience). Although it has only been released for slightly over a month, Made In The Manor — at once both realist and fantastical; anchored in a specific experience but speaking beyond it; conscious of its place in musical and cultural history but resisting conservative urges to hermetically seal a musical form in a moment in time — deserves to be a prominent part of that conversation from now on.