Courtesy of XL Records
Courtesy of XL Records

Unapologetic — the single word I’d use to describe the Godfather of Grime’s tenth studio album, “Snakes and Ladders.” Before listening to this album a few times over, I had no idea who Wiley was nor did I comprehend his prolific impact on the UK music scene. Like most American hip-hop heads, I’ve had amateur contact with the grime genre thanks to YouTube’s “Related Videos” section and aimless Internet musings.

So what is grime? An authentic, underground subgenre that stylistically borrows everything from the breakbeats of hard-hitting UK garage and drum and bass to the rapid-fire lyrical prowess found in hip-hop. While it is just beginning to reach a global audience, albums like “Snakes and Ladders” are sure to get American audiences fired up for something different.

Wiley takes a nostalgic yet contemporary approach with the production, utilizing trap elements like 808s and snare rolls, and adding the signature developments of Wiley’s “eskibeat” sound in the bass and synths. This sets him apart from the next Lex Lugor or DJ Mustard and gives his latest record character from top to bottom. At times I felt like I had been uploaded to an old Gameboy that was given a few jumpy synth programs, composed by someone who watched too many Halloween specials. If you want a lesson in a lyricist who knows how to pick his beats, this is the perfect introduction as Wiley makes it seem effortless to flow over pounding, unrelenting bangers. As you glide through the album, you’ll notice influences from dubstep, electro and jungle, all while getting accustomed to Wiley’s chilling vibe of the early 2000s.

Lyrically, Wiley dominates nearly every track. With an animated cadence, precise delivery and meaty content, Wiley backflips around the rising grime emcees he featured on tracks like “Reel Off” and “Grew Up In.” Often Wiley combines his self-awareness with a flurry of words on tracks like “Step 21” and “BMO Field”: “I was on my laptop listening saying to myself I could duppy this beat / even though it’s got them dubstep elements.” Or “”I share bread and water like Jesus Christ / I know myself well like Three Blind Mice.” Wiley’s braggadocio is fun and charismatic and fits well with his meta-cognizant take on his seasoned position in the grime world.

Frank and boisterous, Wiley tackles topics from the stranglehold of big record labels to simple loneliness at the top of the musical food chain. Wiley even goes toe-to-toe with his overseas brethren Cam’ron and Problem and stands his own on one of the most bass heavy tracks, “Lonely.” He’ll often double-time his bars on beats, seamlessly cutting through tenacious synths like a gatling gun while describing the trials of his younger self or the triumph of his grimy throne. Tracks like “Bloodtype” and “On A Level” will have you banging your head and scrunching your face at the sheer rawness and filth that embodies the streets of Bow, a district in East London. Energetic and catchy, Wiley seems to be magnetic on each track save for a few hiccups in between them.

This leads me to discuss the main gripes I had when digesting this album — the hooks. Wiley is able to pull off some infectious choruses despite the tendency to have a minimal quality to them. In “Busy” he lazily repeats the song title, only to say the “s” part with a “z” sounding inflection to the melody of the chorus. At first this bugged me, but after relistening on a more-than-adequate sound system, I could see how it might go perfect with a little rubber on the road and rev on the gas of your favorite whip.

However, on other tracks I wasn’t as forgiving. “Drive By” and “Flying” have some of the speediest lyrical execution on the entire album and yet fall short of their potential by simply repeating the same words over and over. Where Wiley copy-pasted, he could have easily composed powerful opportunities that would reclaim my attention to the content. Unfortunately I was too busy thinking of what else could have sounded edgy, instead of effective hypnotism of adjacent hooks in “No Skylarking” or “On A Level.”

Despite some slight mistakes, “Snakes and Ladders” is Wiley at his prime. Brash, poetic and introspective, Wiley’s forward thinking, experience and lyrical ability gets more than the job done. Backed by his futuristic production with its wide-ranging elements, this album truly made me not just a grime fan but a Wiley fan. Time will only tell if he can win over the rest of the American audience, as he heads toward the physical release of “Snakes and Ladders” next year.

Rating: 4 stars