Once the bright young thing of British urban music, today Tinie Tempah find himself in an unlikely battle against irrelevance. With more streetwise up and comers such as Stormzy and Skepta stealing his thunder, the 28-year-old artist born Patrick Okogwu stands at an awkward career crossroads. Should he double down on his place at the top table of British pop? Or would his long-term future be better served by returning to the street-wise rawness of his early output?
The dilemma bubbles consistently to the surface across his third album. Youth risks tumbling into the one of the industry’s oldest pitfalls as Tempah moans about the tribulations of fame and how he was better off living with his mum in her council house. But behind the cliched hand-wringing are glimmers of a identity genuine crisis. “Eight years sitting on top,” he raps at one point. “Hip-hop, grime, then I went pop”. The question lingers awkwardly: if it was authenticity that got Okogwu where he is today, does his wealth and privilege pose an existential threat to his ability to make music?
Unfortunately, Tinie’s solution is to try and have it both ways. He ropes in rising Lewisham underdog MNEK for ‘Not For The Radio’ but also duets with Swedish pop star Zara Larsson on ‘Girls Like’ a number that exudes all the urban edge of a Bugatti showroom. Also taking the bright and shiny path on single ‘Shadows’, where from former Kid British singer Bipolar Sunshine delivers a big buttery hook even as Tinie tries to claim credit for the explosion in British rap (“opened doors — everybody getting signed now”).
The problem Tempah wrestles with is that he is the UK hip hop equivalent of a hair metal band trying to work out how to deal with grunge. His ear for a hook is immaculate but, contrasted with the slice of life reportage of Stormzy and Skepta, he sounds like yesterday’s news. This is a fun album – but it says nothing about what it is to be young and British in 2017. As a pop odyssey it’s fine. As anything more, Youth feels old and redundant.