Devlin’s rise to prominence came at an unusual time. As a teenager, he’d received his pirate radio education, sparred with Wiley, and appeared on legendary grime series Practice Hours — aged just 15.
Upon signing to Island Records at 21 he was being tipped and molded to follow contemporaries Tinchy Stryder, Professor Green and Tinie Tempah to the top of the charts. Finding himself in the tricky middle ground between being a chart popstar and a grime MC, his slightly over-produced (but albeit successful) albums didn’t always seem to reflect who Devlin truly was as an artist, or capitalise on his almost peerless ability as a lyricist and MC.
‘The Devil In’ doesn’t suffer any of those pitfalls, and is without a doubt Devlin’s most honest, genuine and consistent piece of work to date. The album still finds a balance between grime, hip-hop, and occasional pop sensibilities — with soulful guest choruses from the likes of Maverick Sabre, Harry James and Tom Prior on ‘Blow Your Mind’, ‘Life’ and ‘Crack Baby’ respectively. But it always feels true to its creator, and never contrived or manufactured for commercial gain.
Likewise, with grime in such good health it would have been easy for Devlin to go with an unabashed collection of 140 BPM bangers. Instead the ‘The Devil’ In is a more considered reflection of Devlin’s feelings, aspirations, and opinions on his place in the scene. It’s something he addresses on ‘Just Wanna Be Me’: “They’re like ‘Yo Dev make a grime track!’ / I’m like ‘Why, would you like that?’” — unconcerned with doing what is expected of him, he has chosen instead to make the music he wants to make (“You do you, I’ll do me”).
The album’s title, and the opening track that bears its name, are a reflection of the brutal honesty and inner turmoil that the record as a whole portrays. Devlin seems incredibly self-critical and accepting that his attitude and work ethic have not always worked in his favour: “I’ve been a prick too long, going on like I don’t care about the career I’ve tailored”.
That’s not to say it’s lacking the aggression, venom and cutting lyrical blows that have become synonymous with the East London MC; but the inherent paradox of Devlin’s trademark bullish self-confidence and the damning critical self-assessment makes for an intriguing portrayal of a conflicted and complex character.
This paradox can potentially go some way to explaining the less palatable aspects of the lyrical content, namely the questionable attitudes to women. Despite an assertion on the track ‘Bitches’ that the word is not (in this instance) being used as a derogatory term for females, femininity is repeatedly equated with weakness, and derogatory terms used worryingly liberally. Yet on the heartfelt ‘Blue Skies’ he addresses his own poor behaviour, misplaced priorities, and regrettable attitudes that resulted him losing the love of someone he genuinely cared about. The undesirable attitudes are by no means excused by this, and nor should they be, but they do nonetheless play a role in the over-arching themes of contradiction and turmoil that pervade the album.
Despite this narrative of inner turmoil — dealing with ‘the devil in’ — the album avoids being excessively self-indulgent or self-pitying. Witty punchlines and clever wordplay are still commonplace, and Devlin’s ability to tell a story is not diminished by the ‘concept’ of the album. ‘Crack Baby’, for example, sees the MC at his raconteurish best in a way that brings to mind the earliest output of fellow East London artist Plan B.
The album might not be exactly what fans were expecting, given the more trademark aggressive and bullish nature of previously released tracks ‘Cold Blooded’, ‘Bitches’ and ‘Castella Freestyle’, but the maturity, honesty and unerring talent on display are unlikely to leave anyone unsatisfied.
Words: James Kilpin
- - -
- - -