At the time of writing, the face of Harrison Armstrong – better known as Aitch – stares down from bus shelters around Britain advertising Lynx deodorant. You can snigger at this development if you like – it’s hardly Jay-Z endorsing luxury Swiss watches – but it’s worth noting that not every multi-platinum US rapper deals exclusively in high-end products: as well as promoting Balenciaga, Megan Thee Stallion recently recorded a track shilling Cheetos, the American equivalent of becoming the glamorous face of Wotsits. Moreover, it tells you something about the spread of UK rap and the position Armstrong currently occupies in British youth culture: there was a time, before Skepta and Stormzy, when a rapper with a Mancunian accent would have got no further than a tiny local label. Today, if you want to reach a big market of odiferous adolescent boys, Aitch, with a string of Top 10 hits to his name – five of them platinum sellers – is very much your guy.
A man who last year did a photoshoot in the former headquarters of Factory Records, Aitch has described his debut album Close to Home as “100,000% a proper Manchester album”. A rumoured collaboration with Liam Gallagher is nowhere to be seen, but Shaun Ryder’s voice booms out between tracks (as does that of one of Aitch’s management team, calling him “a knobhead” for failing to provide receipts for his expenses). His song 1989 samples the Stone Roses’ Fools Gold and pays homage to Madchester’s annus mirabilis in its title, if not its lyrics. The cover is by Matt Carroll of Central Station Design, the company best known for designing the Happy Mondays’ album sleeves, who has been quick to place Aitch in a lineage of “great wordsmiths from Manchester’s past” – including not just Ryder, but John Cooper Clarke. Those comparisons are pushing it a bit: you could just about make a case for a similarity between Aitch’s nasal delivery and that of Cooper Clarke, though there’s none of Ryder’s drugged-out surrealism about his lyrical approach. But Aitch’s lyrics are definitely at their most striking when they abandon the standard-issue stuff about trapping in the bandos to root themselves in his home town, whether hymning family ties on R Kid or mistily recalling a youth spent “smoking in the alley and buying singles from a shabby gaff”. “Back then I had to Rusholme if you grew up in Moston,” he recalls in a neat bit of wordplay on Money Habits.
While Aitch is reliably dispiriting and cliched on the subject of sex (he’s going to “put that pussy to sleep”, she’s “getting nasty in the ride”, etc), presumably that’s the kind of thing the Lynx Epic Fresh massive want to hear. In fairness, he’s pretty sharp on other topics, not least the title track’s exploration of the tension between his roots and success, the push and pull between his love of home (“I got Manny in my core”) and the belief that “at this point, staying local’s just a big mistake”. Flipping the standard hip-hop narrative of complaining that fame makes everyone around you treat you differently, he suggests that it’s actually him that’s changed, not the folks back in Moston.
The production, meanwhile, leaps around all over the place, engaged in the act of covering bases with mixed results: trap-influenced beats on Bring It Back and Cheque, pop R&B on Baby, a children’s choir on the title track. Complete with a guest appearance from Bakar, the great In Disguise sounds not unlike Gorillaz, while My G features a turn from Ed Sheeran at his most nondescript, redeemed by the evidently heartfelt and moving lyric addressed to Aitch’s younger sister, who has Down’s syndrome. The song 1989 was a noticeably smaller hit than Baby, with its sped-up Ashanti samples: perhaps a 33-year-old Stone Roses single is just too old, too locked in its original era, for a teenage audience. Certainly, it isn’t an indication of its quality: overlaying the old John Squire riff with Theme from Shaft horns and vocals that sound as though they’ve stepped off an old rave track. In purely musical terms it might be the album’s best track, although the cut-up Spanish guitar of The Palm runs it close.
For all his success, at 22, you get the feeling that Aitch is still working out his identity, testing the water to see how far he can pull away from the standard UK rap template without alienating its core audience. The result is an album that’s alternately charming and cliched, that involves boilerplate beats and sparky musical invention. That said, nothing about it is going to turn off the teens that constitute Aitch’s fanbase. “I ain’t going anywhere,” he says at the album’s conclusion. He’s referring to Manchester, but it could just as easily be a reference to his current status.
This week Alexis listened to
flowerovlove – Get With You
Perfectly turned, short but sweet alt-rock that avoids the cliches from a 16-year-old hailing from south London.