Early one morning in January 2020 – dark, cold – Bugzy Malone runs through the streets of Manchester. His stride is strong and purposeful: he wears his discipline like armour. “Watch me this year,” he vows.
And watch him, we did – but not always for the intended reasons. Two months later, Malone crashed his quad bike, leaving “a big boy dent in the concrete / they put me in the newspapers and magazines”. His injuries almost killed him, twice: bleeding on the brain and a blood clot in his lung.
Near-death narratives marry humility with victory: from vulnerable brush with mortality to reclamation of strength and life. ‘The Resurrection’, Malone’s second album, is no different. But the ‘King of the North’ – famed for putting Manchester on the grime map, his proud northern vowels still in full swing – rises out of more than one adverse experience.
The record details not just his bike crash, but an incredibly tough past: a childhood marred by addiction, depression, estranged parents, violence, deprivation, prison. Opening title track finds Malone “on these dark nights in the studio with my feelings”. His boyhood diary-writing habit evolved into a ten-year grime career: now the songs are his diary.
That realness sets him apart. Any earnest platitudes or clichéd brags are atoned for by his diarist’s eye for detail, whether it’s the Icarus-like image of his down jacket bursting open at the crash – “woke up on the concrete with feathers everywhere” – or juxtaposing an idyllic childhood with his own upbringing.
“Picture a school uniform fresh out the pack / and picture a confident young boy, mum and a dad / picture them driving to school, he can’t wait to start / what a wonderful life,” he describes on ‘Van Gogh Effect’, “but picture an old Victorian house broke up into two flats / he was on the top floor with a bowl of Nesquik watching Rugrats.” A young boy in a broken home innocently eats his cereal, and the image lingers.
Malone’s artistic interests repeat throughout the album, from Van Gogh to interlude ‘The Masters’, where he talks of “painting with words”, and ‘Salvador’: “speaking into the mic like Salvador sketching in with a pencil”. He’s obsessed with classical and religious figures too – God, Julius Caesar, Macbeth – and as he looks to these major characters with their long-lasting legacies, he reveals his ambitious scope.
The production of ‘The Resurrection’ is no less ambitious, but sometimes comes across like an overdone film score, with titanic sound effects and a theme park of accoutrements: operatic vocals, slow-mo drums, cherub-plucked-strings on ‘Angels’, the vaguely continental guitar on ‘Van Gogh Effect’. The pop soundtrack softens a dark album, helped by radio-friendly brag ‘Ride Out’, the onomatopoeic ‘Bounce’, and Emeli Sande’s appearance on ‘Welcome To The Hood’.
No mere chart bop, though: ‘Welcome To The Hood’ is a chilling indictment of societal and racial inequality, much like the sparse ‘Cold Nights In The 61’. “We’re told to fly the nest before we even learn to run,” he states, a dark twist on his Bugsy gangster musical namesake, where children play adult roles. On ‘M.E.N. III’ he admits contemplating suicide with his school tie. You’re reminded of Johnny Cade in ‘The Outsiders’ – another account of young people thrown into adult situations – speaking from his hospital bed: “I used to talk about killing myself all the time, man. But I don’t wanna die now.”
“It’s easy to live a negative life… to lie in bed and make excuses about everything,” Malone said after that January morning run. “It’s harder to get up out of bed and make something happen.” Harder, still, when the negative parts of your life are the direct result of structural racism. Bugzy Malone may invoke the gods on ‘The Resurrection’, but his story remains an entirely human one.