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22nd March 2022

Album Review: 23 – Central Cee

A review of ’23’, the new project by West London rapper Central Cee.
Album Review: 23 – Central Cee
Photo: Central Cee – Press Shot

On his newest mixtape, Central Cee’s fruitful formula continues to work. ‘23’ scales up in lyricism, subject matter, flow and production from his last project, ‘Wild West’.

In just over 18 months, Central Cee has become UK rap’s golden boy. Fusing melodic drill beats with a cold and punchy flow, the West London rapper was voted GRM Rated Male Artist of the Year 2021. His reach and role in the cultural shift is also evident in his three Brit nominations and a fifth place in BBC Radio 1’s Sound Of 2022.

While Central Cee is not the only rapper carving a unique sound and content within drill, my anticipation for ‘23’ was rooted in Central’s fusion. On the No Jumper podcast the rapper broke it down, “the melody always needs to be different. I hate that dark drill beat…I needed to switch it up.” (The Central Cee Interview).

Sampling jazzy riffs, catchy flute melodies and stirring choral vocals rather than the typical ominous piano has fired up demand for Central’s music. None of the eerie melodies and murky 808 slides typically heard on Carnshill, Ghosty and M1ONTHEBEAT’s drill classics can be heard on Central’s own music. 

Weaving in a message of humility, Central is indicative of the shift away from rap’s go-to narrative of pride and rivalry. First releasing in a trap-wave style in 2017 but exploding onto the scene with the matured, and now classic, ‘Day in the Life’ in 2020, he champions his slow journey to the top rather than an overnight success.

Central Cee’s magnetism owes much to his relatability. While drill hits from Russ Millions and Tion Wayne also depart from the original sound of 67 and Harlem Spartans, Central is taking this to uncharted territory. “When I’m going into some of these meetings…they’ll be saying to me ‘what kind of trajectory do you wanna go in…a blueprint of another artist’…I could never answer that question” (The Central Cee Interview).

On the new mixtape, Central Cee’s fruitful formula continues to work. ‘23’ scales up in production, subject matter and flow from his last project, ‘Wild West’. In some ways ‘23’ is quite typical: topics ranging from rap politics, street commentary, romantic endeavours, sly disses and some personal reflections. Central Cee’s spin comprises total transparency in his stardom and honesty of his experience selling drugs. There are signs of artistic ripening throughout the project, with intimate writing accompanying increasingly lavish instrumentals. 

‘Khabib’ dramatically kicks off the mixtape with layered violins and a cut-throat flow, catching you off guard as the UFC giant would. The track is dominant and meticulous yet effortless. Central’s flow gathers pace, culminating in a killer second verse. The impressive detail in the delivery of every line validates the comparison in the title. Khabib is infamous for his measured but merciless destruction of opponents, Central’s flow and bars embody this analogy. It’s a deft reference. 

Central levels out his ego over a serene pan pipe and vocal sample on ‘Straight Back to It’. This is the first of nine production credits for Young Chencs who, alongside Chris Rich, trophy the finest elements of production on the mixtape. Central’s trademark flow melds nicely with the beat and a sample from Young Adz lending his thoughts on the ruthlessness of the rap game results in a satisfactory track. It is fitting considering Young Adz’s emergence as a young talent at only 15 and meteoric rise to fame. Sounds familiar. 

‘Cold Shoulder’ is a great old-school ‘spilling-of-thoughts’ track. Lines such as “Remember the flooring peelin’ off, had damp all over the ceilin’, We trap for a positive reason, all ’cause the rap weren’t bringin’ no Ps in” followed by “From Bush to Beverly Hills, I’m lookin’ at bro like “Look at the sh*t we’ve built”” are a continuation of Central’s efforts to broadcast street life in an uplifting manner. Poeticizing his socio-economic elevation over a stripped, slick beat echoes elements of 90s US hip-hop.

Honourable mention to one of my favourite bars on the mixtape, “They made some change and forgot their roots, I made somе change and picked up the young Gs, Took thеm shoppin’ and copped them shoes”. 

Central Cee shifts the attention of his new-found audience, amassed through hits such as ‘Obsessed With You’, towards serious topics. On ‘Lil Bro’ Central and his real-life younger brother rap back-and-forth over a blazing string beat, brilliantly illustrating the intergenerational tension between pre and post street life. One shares wisdom and the other exposes hypocrisy. Central’s delivery is raw and heart-felt. Their brotherly chemistry on a call and response structure creates an immersive experience. Key changes in the beat signal exasperation and synths are introduced as Central’s tone sharpens, fulfilling his role as big brother. “What you wanna be when you’re older? Cee, I wanna be a drug dealer” & “I got my bros And when it gets peak, they back my beef…Same man that will back your beef Same ones that sends statements in!”. A sudden tender piano synchronises with bars about the boy’s parents, or lack-of. These artistic touches, often sparse in drill and trap music, aid Central’s embodiment as the wiser, attentive sibling. 

Almost all of the musical merits on ‘23’ hail from producer Young Chencs. From the Pink Floyd-esque outro on ‘Airbnb’ to the brass sample on ‘Terminal 5’, “You are now listening to Young Chencs” credits his glamorous production throughout. His pitched up trumpet and rhythmic beeping on ‘Retail Therapy’ is a skillful sample of Hank Crawford’s ‘Wildflower’. Also sampled by the likes of Kanye and 2Pac, it adds flair to the mixtape.

Adventurous production facilitates Central’s highest quality rapping throughout ‘23’ and ‘End of the Beginning’ proves this. The beautiful piano immediately alluded to the inspiration or influence of Dave’s production, the latter being the case. Central admits,Executively produced by Dave still…he’s responsible for basically the whole song (Central Cee Interview with Alhan & Friends).

Dave’s piano pursues Central; a dark key change turns a forlorn tone and reminiscent bars into pure braggadocio. Immaculate yet seething annunciation then complements a screw-face inducing beat switch. Chris Rich and Young Chencs collaborate on production to deliver my favourite song of the mixtape.   

It would be criminal to ignore ‘Eurovision’, a song pulling rappers from Italy, Spain and France onto one star-studded drill banger. If a competition, Italy emerges victorious. Rondodasosa’s explosive delivery nicely juxtaposes Baby Gang’s bouncy flow. Whether an artistic or business decision the song works, with Central stating in July 2021, “that’s suttin’ I really wanna do. Bring Europe together(The Central Cee Interview).

I’m writing this article while in Spain. When talking to other students from around Europe, Central Cee is often the only British rapper people have heard of. At parties students from Belgium, France and Italy request Central Cee. Either way, the West London artist is undeniably business savvy, “I do like the marketing side of things, more so than the music sometimes(The Central Cee Interview).

A handful of songs on ‘23’ could benefit from some added musicality. Central begins several songs with the same echoed intro and previews the drill-type drums in identical format. ‘Bunda’, ‘Air Bnb’ and ‘Terminal 5’ contain a singular verse and chorus, revealing them as fairly basic.

Overall this is an exciting release for UK rap fans and I’d say it meets expectations. The mantra has changed on ‘23’, fully aware of his opportunity to empower younger listeners. Spitting varied flows over glitzy instrumentals within the confines of drill, this has huge commercial potential. UK rap is often held to an unfair standard but ‘23’ is a good project with a good message. “A lot of the time it’s only rap, but I gotta talk sometimes, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the trap, I just can’t glorify it”.


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