London’s new voice
You might expect an album titled Universal Credit to be besieged with savage takedowns of MP’s and long-forgotten manifesto pledges. But Jeshi’s groundbreaking debut record isn’t about engaging in the fool’s game that is British politics, it’s incensed, instead, by empowering those the government has chosen to forget, shouting out the unlucky masses born without six digits in their account.
The UK rapper’s sparkling debut speaks to a universal experience of life in the UK, using codes true to any city or once-bustling market town. Take his namechecking of Philip Schofield and the Loose Women lot, stars of daytime telly whose droll chatter serves as a mirror to the pain and purposelessness of his mid-week movements. His trip to the corner shop is similarly banal, fiending for a National Lotto ticket, he looks for any sign that, this time, luck will be in his favour. He misses the bus there, of course, so he’s stuck for what seems like an eternity in this purgatory, kicking through alleyways of piss-filled Lucozade bottles and dark grey skies that seem to never lift.
Photos by Guy Gooch
This is a dynamic portrait of modern life that yearns for change despite having no idea how to enact it. Jeshi’s bars lace around stripped-back beats with intricate precision, marking a departure from the slow, creeping emotions of his earlier work. Some, like the Fredwave-assisted 3210, punch you in all the right places, lifting you out of drunken stupors with biting drum beats and faint piano strums. The likes of Two Mums, where the rapper gives a finger to the nuclear family and instead cherishes the beauty of same-sex love, distorts murky sirens into shoulder-bopping grooves with breathtaking ease, a reminder that no matter our identity, more of us are stuck on this fucked-up ride than we think.
With some colossal billboards dotted around the city, featuring a sky-scraper-sized version of the rapper grimacing with his monthly check, and a recent appearance on COLORS marking the release of his first full-length album in style, below Jeshi digs a little deeper into the memories and cultural ephemera that inspired his debut album.
Photos by Guy Gooch
Bailey Slater: Let’s not beat around the bush, the album is absolutely stellar – what’s the reaction been like so far?
Jeshi: It feels really good. I didn’t expect it to come out and do a billion streams in a day or spawn endless TikTok challenges but it does truly feel like it’s connecting with people and deeper than just on a surface level; that’s the main thing I wanted from this so I’m happy.
BS: If you could sum up what you made in a sentence, or even a couple of words, what would they be?
J: The new sound of London.
BS: When did you start work on Universal Credit – and how did you land on the name?
J: At the root, it was me sitting there on Universal Credit stressing about how to make it last while I wasn’t making any other money, that paired with this burning feeling to give more of myself through the music and talk about things that a lot of the time it isn’t cool to speak about. Where better to start than there?
BS: As this is your debut album, was there anything you were super keen on doing differently to when you were working on the EPs that preceded it?
J: My whole approach was just way more considered. Really early on in the process, I wrote a sort of manifesto saying what I wanted this album to say and mean, I used to refer back to it whenever I was in the studio working on [the] music. It was like I had the outlines mapped out already and then it was just a case of colouring it all in.
“It was important to offset the title and themes through the album with humour.”
BS: I read recently that the title is sort of nonpolitical, more so a reflection of your situation than some mega-commentary on the British welfare system. Are politics something you find yourself wanting to speak on in your art?
J: I’ve always said it isn’t political because those genuinely were not my intentions. I have no save-the-world plan up my sleeve. It was just me speaking about my situation and what was going on in my life in the hopes that people could relate to that. That being said, I was speaking to a mate the other day about this and he said everything is political in a way, and although it wasn’t my intention, it’s obviously really resonating especially in these times we are in right now.
BS: Who were your sonic influences when you got into the studio? Have any of them reached out about Universal Credit?
J: I don’t think I had any direct musical influences on this record although I took inspiration from two albums I love for their writing and feel; [The Streets’] Original Pirate Material and [Amy Winehouse’s] Frank. I just love how both of those really paint this honest portrayal of their lives and what was going on around them, they’re also both packed with humour which I think is the true British way.
BS: How did you put together a track like Hit by a Train – from start to finish?
J: Hit By A Train was really funny. I made that in a day with Jonah [Stevens] in his studio and we just bounced off each other in a really magical way. The whole idea is pretty tongue-in-cheek using the metaphor of being hit by a train to get across how it feels on those days where everything that could go wrong does go wrong. It’s Sod’s Law.
Photos by Guy Gooch
“It’s the details that make any story believable and make the world realistic.”
BS: There’s a lot of British iconography dotted throughout the project – the UC cheques and the Lotto gun-fingers being just some that made it onto the album art – how did they inspire you throughout the process?
J: I just love references that are so British, so ingrained in our brains, and giving them new life. It’s the details that make any story believable and make the world realistic, so whether it’s TFL, National Lottery, HMRC, Phillip Schofield or Loose Women it’s important to use these to illuminate my world. Also, they really have helped to tie in the general theme of everyday-ism and mundanity that’s there throughout.
BS: 3210 is another standout. What can you tell us about the influences behind this track, particularly how the video came together?
J: 3210 was the earliest idea that ended up in the album. It really shifted the gears for me creatively as while making it I stumbled on a much truer voice. It’s one of the first times I made something that off-the-bat just felt so London, but in a new way, which was always something I’d been striving for. The video is something I’m also so proud of, I worked with Will Dohrn who’s truly a genius and as soon as he presented the idea I was all the way in. We printed over 2000 stop motion sequence photos and had a camera OP on rollerskates ride over them filming so they came to life and looked like animation.
BS: Can you tell me more about what you were looking in terms of visuals?
J: I think this was a really important part of this album. When you’re doing an album and calling it Universal Credit that obviously carries a lot of weight, so I think it’s very important to be careful and thoughtful about how you execute that because ultimately that will control the narrative. This is something me and Francis [Plumm] – who worked on all the creative with me – spoke about: how to get the tone right. It was important to offset the title and themes through the album with humour, something I think we really nailed on the cover and helped people really take in what we were saying with it.
UNIVERSAL CREDIT THE ALBUM OUT EVERYWHERE NOWhttps://t.co/8eBWBLfysD
words can’t capture how much this means to me thank you everyone who’s ever given me an ear listened to what I have to say. STREAM BUY IT TAKE A SELFIE WITH THE BILLBOARD. pic.twitter.com/ta1WRaifKc
— Jeshi (@jeshi100) May 27, 2022
BS: And what of that insane billboard by Hackney Tesco? It’s definitely the best advert I’ve seen in my life.
J: [laughs] It’s my favourite part of all of this. Me and Francis were just sitting in the pub talking about outdoor marketing and how to make it exciting. When an artist gets a billboard it used to be like, wow, you’ve made it! But everybody has one now, so it’s lost the effect. I walk past so many every day and [they] don’t even register. We just thought this would be funny and so over-the-top it would really make people pay attention. Now people speak to me about the billboard just as much as they do about the album itself. I guess that means it worked.
BS: National Lottery is the album’s bookend, what made you decide to close this story with the track?
J: I just felt really nostalgic and like the perfect full stop at the end of the story. I’ve always really thought about the significance of the beginning and end [of an album]. I think it’s so important to set the scene and close the curtains really well, I’m careful with the taste you leave in someone’s mouth at the end of an album.
Jeshi’s Universal Credit is out now.