- Mon, 2011-06-27 14:31
Fem Fel first dabbled with rap during his time in prison before going on to devote his full attention to it upon his release in 2005. It’s been a long road, but in the intervening period he has made his way steadily to the top of the UK underground following a stint with Giggs’ SN1 crew and a subsequent move towards solo work. After a series of mixtapes, June 2011 sees Fem take the next logical step and release his debut solo album, Eyes Closed.
At a time when the majority of UK emcees in the charts come from a grime background as opposed to a hip hop one (Wretch 32 and Giggs being the exceptions that prove the rule), the quandary that presents itself to an artist in Fem Fel’s position is how to break through the glass ceiling of the underground without alienating their existing fan-base. With Eyes Closed, however, Fem Fel looks to have made all the right moves.
In production terms, the album features a small handful of tracks that would sit comfortably on the playlist of a mainstream radio station. Runnin’ and Hero are the foremost amongst them; the former sounds not unlike a Neptunes track and the latter is a more poignant tune built around ringing piano chords, while both feature the kind of r&b chorus hook that is so prevalent in contemporary US hip hop. Less straightforwardly commercial, but still with a good deal of mass appeal are Floating, which recalls Frank Ocean or 808s & Heartbreak-era Kanye West and features Wretch 32, and Eyes Closed, a head-popping mixture of staccato piano and horns.
The majority of the album, however, seems more geared towards Fem’s existing fanbase, opting for less of a pop aesthetic. Those tracks produced by Dan Dare – Put It In A Bag, Going In and Money Money Money – are the finest of the bunch, their blend of rough synths, brash bass and skittering beats creating irresistible and slightly dark grooves that demand to be turned up loud.
Fem’s rapping is up to its usual high standard. There are some relatively uninspiring tracks that he just uses as an excuse to boast – particularly Mister Mister and Magnificent – but even on these occasions his able rhyming goes some way to justify his confidence; as he says himself on Eyes Closed, “some say that I’m arrogant, well I guess that’s a trait of the talented, but if I make a shit track then I’ll say it’s shit, so if I make another classic imma say it is.” More frequently he delves into his past to reveal how his troubled youth led to time behind bars (Going In, Runnin’), or how similar situations might affect others (Gone Nuts), and on Hero he opts for a story-telling approach, meditating on a dysfunctional relationship: “real talk: I don’t even wanna sleep with you. The night’s done, don’t really wanna leave with you. Got every man telling me what he would do, it’s fucked up cos I still wanna be with you.” The only criticisms to be levelled at Fem are his occasional lack of clarity and the frequency with which he says ‘uh’, something that might begin to grate on some listeners.
Eyes Closed perfectly demonstrates why Fem Fel is one of the biggest names in underground UK hip hop, and in its finer moments it even hints at his ability to transcend that stage in favour of the mainstream. He isn’t there yet; there are still plenty of rough edges and one or two mis-steps, but this album is the sound of an artist on the verge of finding the winning formula.