“I don’t wanna be the old guy on the block talking about what once was, and that’s why I search for new moments,” Ghetts said in the run-up to his first major label release, ‘Conflict Of Interest’. The 36-year-old grime don knows the dangers of getting caught in nostalgia – stuck, wheels spinning, in situations which shaped you but risk stifling your growth. “It’s only in the present where the future can be moulded,” he raps on this titanic album. Yet it’s his reflective mood that drives ‘Conflicts’, together with production choices that propel the genre forward.
On the six-minute ‘Autobiography’ Ghetts documents his sixteen-year career, from three-year-old stage moves to mixtape to major label. “Started out in Nasty Crew / Just after Dizzee Rascal blew,” he begins. Now Dizzee’s a guest on his record, a veteran alongside the likes of Skepta and Stormzy, and newcomers like Pa Salieu: Ghetts’ eye is on the horizon as much as his rear-view mirror. But the long, starry guest list includes several of his own past selves. Ghetto, Ghetts, Justin Clarke: they inhabit the album cover and the words within – “You take the fire of the young, the power of now, the wisdom of the old / Combine all three and that’s a recipe for winning.”
Ghetts knits last year’s single ‘Mozambique’ into the album’s tapestry with an added interlude to give the track the air of a contemporary stage production. Lengthy soliloquies comprise the sixteen tracks (a track for every year of his career, perhaps) but the album is never baggy nor indulgent. Crammed to the rafters, there’s something for every listener: mainstream names and leftfield tracks, pop-facing collaborations with Emeli Sande and Ed Sheeran (yup, he raps), and political volleys. “Don’t tell me go back where I came from / While the Queen sits there in stolen jewels,” he spits with Skepta on ‘IC3’, the police code for black suspects.
His versatility in tone and topic extends to the music: rich instrumentation swoops in to lift the genre’s usual minimalism. Piano, bass guitar, strings, and horns sit happily among grime surroundings, and complement Ghetts’ cinematic writing. Yet the understated tracks hold the greatest power. ‘Hop Out’ pairs starker beats with a moving and conflicted recollection of schoolboy car theft. The cold urban rush of ‘Proud Family’ counters warm lyricism about fatherhood, ghostly guests linger on the spectral backing of ‘Autobiography’, and answerphone messages on ‘Dead To Me’ frame the lost contact of a once-close friend. All the while, despite its Dickensian scope, Ghetts’ writing stays sharp and sophisticated: “I ain’t phoned to say a change gon’ come, that’s what Sam sung.”
‘Conflict Of Interest’ is Ghetts’ wee small hours moment as much as it is his major label bigtime. Either way, he keeps his cool: the record’s expansive soundscape and storytelling deserve several long listens, yet its fresh outlook hints at an exciting future for grime. Fame and nostalgia pose no threat to an artist able to embrace conflicting identities. “You see when I feel cornered, all I do is think of before / I drive back to the house I struggled in,” he says, and Ghetto, Ghetts, and Justin are all in the car together, riding in harmony.