The hooded sweatshirt is often seen as a signifier of youth criminality, a utilitarian garment repurposed as sinister cloak. On his powerhouse sixth album, Hoodies All Summer, the veteran British rapper Kano turns that notion on its head. Here, the hoodie is cast as pitiful protection from the incessant sorrows raining down on young black men, no matter the season.
The track at its centre, Teardrops – which opens with a spine-tinging blend of piano and electronic loops and has a gorgeous, elegiac orchestral coda – is a desperate, angry and moving account of everyday racial injustices in modern Britain. “We used to dream of the most frivolous things/ ’Til we brought the most ridiculous of rings/ Now we’re trying to keep our brethren out the bin,” Kano raps, underlining his themes of empathy, maturity and responsibility for his community.
Hoodies All Summer is the album that grime has been crying out for, an audacious state-of-the-nation address from one of its most articulate lyricists. At 34, Kano (real name: Kane Robinson) has been around since the early days of a fierce, electronic-based genre that put British rap on the map in the Noughties. He has always exhibited substantial skill, switching up tempos and expertly shifting between a tough, attacking spoken style, a more playful reggae patois and snatches of singing in a plain but tuneful voice.
Rising to the challenge posed by the Glastonbury crossover success of Stormzy, Kano is moving grime on from its tedious self-obsession. The result is a revelation. From his declaration that he is broadcasting “live and direct from the belly of the beast” on Good Youtes Walk Amongst Evil to the show-stopping finale of SYM (an acronym for the slang insult “suck your mum”, cheekily repurposed for this inspirational anthem), Kano never lets up: every track is packed with sharp rhymes deployed in service of cogent, passionate arguments about real-life issues. Perky and inventive production from Blue May and Jodi Milliner, surprising pop hooks and a fine peppering of humour ensure the results are not dour or oppressive, yet always driven by a sense of purpose.
The album’s high point is Trouble, a sprawling, multi-part epic that addresses the socio-economic causes of the UK’s knife-crime epidemic. “Politicians, hush, don’t make a sound/ Been oppressing us a couple of centuries now/ And these gunshots never reach your town,” Kano raps before offering hope for both victims and perpetrators of violence.
Amid tension, tragedy, news sound bites – and a gospel choir singing “we don’t want no trouble” – he switches to a celebration of the best of British community to suggest alternative potential futures for wannabe gangsters. “My only obligation is to give inspiration,” he raps. “This is the winner’s table and here’s your invitation.” It is an offer anyone interested in the state of British music would be foolish to refuse.
Hoodies All Summer is released by Parlophone on August 30