Central Cee: 23 review – London rapper’s debut tells of an irresistible rise to fame

(Central Cee)
Unexpected musical ideas and a powerful flow demonstrate why 2021 brought not only chart success but three Brit nominations

Amid the boasts on Khabib, the first song of Central Cee’s debut album, lurks the line “I been in the charts for 18 weeks”. The track – named for an undefeated Russian mixed martial arts fighter – is a rare moment of understatement. The London rapper has spent 18 weeks in the Top 10 alone: he’s actually been in the singles chart for 97 weeks since his first crossover hit, Loading, arrived in late 2020.

By anyone’s metric, Central Cee had a very good 2021 indeed: a gold album for his first mixtape, Wild West; six hit singles – eight if you count his collaboration with D-Block Europe and his appearance on a remix of Ed Sheeran’s Bad Habits – and three nominations at the Brits. Thanks to a guest slot on FKA twigs’ Measure of a Man, he even ended up on the soundtrack of the most recent Kingsman film, seldom noted for boosting UK trap.

It’s not meant to underplay the years the 23-year-old born Oakley Ceasar-Su spent developing his craft – he started out slathering his voice in Auto-Tune before shifting to a more drill-facing sound – to suggest that his actual success has happened very quickly. You can hear it in the lyrics of 23, which come thick with memories of his pre-fame life that still seem to have happened just “the other day”. One minute he’s getting nicked in the crowd at the Wireless festival – apparently for the crime of “trying to get the party turnt”, which presumably wasn’t the precise wording on the arrest form – the next, he’s playing the main stage on both Saturday and Sunday.

If you’re wondering how he’s done it, 23 provides some intriguing pointers. As a rapper, he’s possessed of a powerful flow and can turn a phrase – “I had no money / I weren’t embarrassed / I’m doin’ up road in my Toyota Yaris” – but the lyrics tend to stick fast to the usual topics: a rough upbringing (chucked out of home aged 14, left school with no GCSEs); a pre-rap life of crime; the bragging tempered by affecting bursts of regret, as on Ungrateful, which expresses the desire to “turn the page … anti-clockwise, got to burn the sage”; success and its associated feuds and drawbacks. He briefly steps out of character on Retail Therapy, where he expresses a desire to connect with his “female energy” by going shopping and gets a ticking off from his mum for being “materialistic”, but for the most part it deals in the expected done well rather than springing surprises.

But 23 also displays how good Central Cee is at the business of making records, not just writing. There are a lot of really strong musical ideas on display, some of which are the work of producer Young Chencs, whose sonic signature is all over the album, quite literally: you’re never far from a female voice announcing who’s produced the beat. The hook of Retail Therapy takes a snatch of sax from Hank Crawford’s 1973 jazz album Wildflower and subjects it to the kind of speeding-up treatment common in early 90s hardcore rave: the result is nagging and unique. Just before it ends, the backing of Air BnB suddenly shifts from merely lifting the electric piano from a 70s soft rock track and turns into the 70s soft rock it’s been sampling, while Central Cee keeps rapping. The brief Terminal 5 is based around another great, unexpectedly jazzy sample, this time of a ragged trumpet-led band. Elsewhere, the idea of borrowing from PinkPantheress’ Just for Me on Obsessed With You is inspired, and not merely because it guaranteed the track – released as a single in September – vast coverage on TikTok, where PinkPantheress is a breakout star. The sound of the original – essentially an early-00s pop-garage cut turned helium-voiced and oddly unsettling – is a perfect counterpoint to the rapper’s voice.

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The best track might be the most unexpected: Eurovision, on which Central Cee assembles a phalanx of guests, his fellow Shepherd’s Bush native A2anti joined by two rappers apiece from France, Italy and Spain. In one sense, it’s a risk to cede a huge swathe of a track to names that are essentially unknown in the UK and who perform in their native languages (although it may buy him headway in their respective fiercely competitive domestic rap scenes). But it really pays off: Milan’s Rondodasosa, with whom Central Cee guested on a single last year, is a particularly striking find, a furious, gruff voice rapping in a mix of Italian and English. The effect is subtly different, while firmly rooted in a tradition: much like the rest of 23.

This week Alexis listened to

Sipho – Occasion
From his latest EP, She Might Bleed, comes the kind of track that makes you wonder why the Birmingham-based singer isn’t a huge star: the minimal synth backing allows his extraordinary voice space to soar.