Central Cee, often known as Cench, rarely as Oakley Neil Caesar-Su from Shepherd’s Bush, is undisputedly London’s rapper of the moment. This week he has three songs in the UK top 40, including his D-Block Europe collaboration, Overseas, which has sat in the top 10 since the start of the year. His previous mixtape, Wild West, went to number two last spring, while his single Obsessed With You was the UK’s sixth most popular song on all-important TikTok in 2021, out-viralling Ed Sheeran. We can even make an unlikely comparison between this thoroughly tattooed breakout from the drill scene and Adele. Like her albums, 23 is named for his age, following an early EP titled 17. And like her work, this collection looks like a certain number one.
His sound has the murky, rumbling bass of drill music, but his crisp, rhythmic lyrics are less dense with slang than the standards of the genre and he’s more likely to brag about a vibrant sex life than a violent past. There are melodic plucked guitars on Ungrateful, high sweet vocal samples on Cold Shoulder, and an odd, hyperspeed saxophone on Retail Therapy. The influence of Dave, who has a producer credit, can be heard in the mournful piano and gothic choir of the tense final song, End of the Beginning.
These softer elements have ensured his crossover appeal and set him far apart from his peers. In the video for Khabib (named after a Russian Mixed Martial Arts fighter) he leaves behind the cars, jewellery and pneumatic women of so many rap videos and goes hiking in the hills, even bringing his own tent. Nor does he appear to be aiming for US success, instead turning in the opposite direction to feature two French, two Spanish and two Italian rappers on the jostling, fiery Eurovision.
The 15 tracks roughly follow his journey so far. In the opening verses he has no money, up to no good in a little Toyota Yaris. By the end a female voice is urging him to “buy a house in the country and just have the fucking life that you deserve.” But he’s refreshingly frank when it comes to those who might want to follow his path. Lil Bro is an impassioned argument with someone who wants to deal drugs: “I thought the road was cool as a young boy/It’s not though, I got misled,” he raps. He’s come a long way, and the powerful songs here will cement his place in the mainstream.