7. Kate Tempest – Let Them Eat Chaos
I sometimes wonder whether Kate Tempest actually exists. Was she ever real? Or just a Guardian editor’s fever dream made flesh, designed to sell tote bags at boutique festivals. I’m exaggerating, but the fact remains that there are many for whom, regardless of their politics, the very idea of Kate Tempest is a nauseating one, for whom phrases like “socially conscious performance poet” provoke a particular brand of loathing.
She’s always been better than the stereotype to which her critics would reducer her, but Let Them Eat Chaos, while a decent record, is not the masterpiece she might well be capable of, and it probably won’t win over anyone cynical about her past work. The album is constrained by an overambitious concept and a set of beats which are often too minimal and repetitive to be memorable. It tells the story of seven strangers – all residents of the same south London street – an excessive undertaking which condemns too many songs to being plodding exercises in exposition. Energetic highlights like ‘Whoops’ and ‘Europe is Lost’ affirm her prodigious talent however, and justify the record’s nomination. Let Them Eat Chaos could well win, and I wouldn’t be outraged if it did. Tempest can be trite, she can be over-earnest, but she can also be brilliant.
6. Loyle Carner – Yesterday’s Gone
I like Loyle Carner and I like this album, but I can’t help feeling that it’s a bit tame, a bit BBC Introducing – the sort of rap music that gets described as poetry in broadsheet newspapers. It’s an enjoyable listen all the way through, but the somewhat hazy instrumentals often bleed into one another; the album could have done with a few more songs like ‘NO CD’ to lend variety to its pacing, and to keep the slower, sensitive songs more distinct.
Yesterday’s Gone is an impressive and moving debut, but it feels too safe to be a defining statement. He probably won’t win this year, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see a future Loyle Carner album take home the prize.
5. The xx – I See You
The band who inspired a generation of breathy imitators to gather dust on SoundCloud returned in January with their most dynamic album to date, a necessary reaction to the comatose sound of 2012’s Coexist.
After the runaway success of Jamie xx’s solo album In Colour, you’d have expected I See You to be a reenergised affair, and that narrative broadly holds true – but it’s marred by the fact that almost half of the album, in spite of the livelier instrumentals, manages to be fairly dull. ‘Dangerous’ sounds anything but, while songs like ‘Say Something Loving’ and ‘A Violent Noise’ are sluggish and pretentious, bringing out the worst in a band that’s never been averse to indulgence and melodrama.
The latter half of the album however, contains some of the band’s best material to date: ‘Brave For You’ is moving and graceful, while ‘Replica’ and ‘On Hold’ reach the majestic heights of the band’s first album, easily justifying the record’s inclusion on the shortlist. That very debut has already won them the prize once however, so it’s doubtful that this merely solid effort will bring it home again.
4. Dinosaur – Together, As One
I’m a fraud: I don’t really know anything about jazz. I’ve bookmarked several guides to the genre, but I’ve never properly committed to working through them. I really like Charles Mingus, but that’s about the only opinion I’ve managed to establish, and respect for the already canonical is hardly incisive criticism. Obviously, I should have found someone who does know about jazz to review this album – nobody replies to my commissions emails though, so here we are.
My own ignorance notwithstanding, I really enjoyed Together, As One. Without wishing to make it sound like the wallpaper music you might be expecting, it’s a subtle album, but one which never feels less than focused and deliberate. ‘Living, Breathing’ and ‘Primordial’ are particularly good tracks, but the album works excellently as a cohesive whole. A brief Wikipedia consultation informs me that the prize has never been won by the token jazz album; Dinosaur would be deserving recipients.
3. Stormzy – Gang Signs and Prayer
Where Stormzy’s concerned, it’s impossible to separate the art from the artist. As high as that line must have scored on the music writer wank-o-meter, it’s no surprise that such a joyful, exciting album has been made by such an instantly likeable personality. Stormzy is an immensely charismatic performer and has by far the best twitter presence of anyone on the shortlist; as much as I like Gang Signs and Prayer, I’d like him to win even more than I’d like the album to win.
Admittedly, that does rather downplay a great debut, a diverse and modern record that isn’t afraid to take risks. When he’s not writing fiery big hitters like ‘Cold’ and ‘Big for Your Boots’, Stormzy gets away with all sorts of songs that many rappers could only dream of, whether its tender gospel on ‘Blinded by Your Grace’, or smooth R&B on ‘Velvet / Jenny Francis – Interlude’.
In a year which has really picked up where 2016 left off on the being consistently shit front, Stormzy winning the Mercury Prize would be a really nice, good thing to happen. Gang Signs and Prayer isn’t the era-defining, watershed moment for grime that the hype might have you expect – it’s overlong, and not everything quite works – but it’d be a worthy winner that few could be disappointed by.
2. J Hus – Common Sense
Common Sense is the shortlist’s dark horse, an album that, on paper, has everything necessary to win, but that the bookies don’t seem to fancy. J Hus is an immensely versatile MC, and his boundless talent allows Common Sense to jump between genres with spectacular ease. The title track dabbles in classic hip-hop to produce something triumphant and modern, while ‘Did You See’ is an effortless summer anthem, sunny and endlessly infectious. There’s real heart and tactful sentiment in amongst the bangers too – ‘Spirit’ and ‘Good Luck Chale’ are defiant without ever sounding corny – while the album has a consistent sense of depth and quality which almost justifies its massive 55 minute runtime. Not all 17 songs are great, but a remarkable number are.
Unfortunately though, it seems likely that, as with Kano’s Made in the Manor last year, Common Sense may well be overlooked in favour of the rap album with the greater amount of public hype behind it. I’d be very pleasantly surprised if it won, but I’m sceptical about its chances.
1. Sampha – Process
Putting Sampha at the number 1 spot is hardly a hot take; it’s a critical darling that many believe will win, but it’s one of the favourites for a reason. It’s a gentle, introverted album that’s a lot weirder than it had to be, full of gorgeous electronic lullabies that sound confident and progressive.
Process should win because it’s so clearly the album Sampha wanted to make. Indeed, no profile of him is complete without namechecking the dizzying array of stars with whom he’s worked: in the past, Sampha has shone on tracks by Drake, Kanye, Solange, and Jessie Ware, while also having done production work for SBTRKT. I’m sure it’s easier said than done, but presumably he could have drafted in one of his famous collaborators for a massive hit, had he wanted one. He didn’t though, and however great those artists are, they’d have been out of place on this beguiling suite of songs that are so distinctly Sampha’s own. It’s his album, and it’s great.