track-by-track: j hus talks through his debut, common sense
The man who helped break British afrobeats takes us through his debut album.
Whether you call it UK afrobeats or afrogrime, it's hard to dispute J Hus' influence and impact on this genre-free sound that infuses grime, rap, R&B, dancehall and afrobeat. Hus' debut mixtape 15th Day featured killer single Dem Boy Paigon which all but singlehandedly kick-started the genre that no one can quite name.
Quickly signing to Black Butter, Hus dropped hit after hit until a four-month prison sentence put a pause on everything; released in June 2016, the 21-year-old has since focused solely on music, and it's paid off. Hugely. There have been collaborations with Stormzy and Dave, cover stories for the Fader, and YouTube views at well over the 150m mark. "I used to think I was useless, just a road guy," he tells i-D, "but music has shown me I have potential, that I can do something with my life, that I have a talent. Who I was before, that's not me. I'm fun, I'm happy, I'm creative. That's who I want to be."
Now ready to release his debut album, Common Sense, on Black Butter, Hus has been mindful to broaden his influences even further beyond Africa, Jamaica and east London. Boasting an ebullient blend of dancehall, afrobeat, grime, rap, garage and R&B, Common Sense is a musical revelation, an emotional roller coaster ride into the inner musings of an inner-city musician. As well as his signature sound there are nods to other influences too; Mike Skinner's Original Pirate Material and classic Jamaican gangsta film, Shottas, a visit to Dublin and his Ghanaian upbringing. Part of the album features live instrumentation while it's littered with Hus' own brand of slang, from 'Bouff' to 'Bunsah'.
Keeping the guests to a minimum, Common Sense features Let It Ring star MoStack and Birmingham rapper MIST, singer Tiggs Da Author and Nigerian superstar Burna Boy. Production over the entire album comes from Hus and long-term collaborator JAE5, with additional production from Tiggs, Show & Prove, The Compozers, Mark Crown, TSB and IO.
A deftly delivered, thoughtfully considered collection of songs, the album is streaked with an irrepressible sense of humour while also underscoring a more serious side to Hus. There are reflections on past illegal endeavours to be found within Hus' oeuvre, but they're deceptively delivered; the soundtrack is so joyous that the suggestion of darkness, conveyed mostly through Hus' persuasive flow, is a mere shadow lurking behind the upbeat beats. It makes Hus a dichotomous proposition, but also an infinitely interesting one.
"What I'm trying to do with my music is to make it more meaningful -- I'm trying to put more messages into what I'm saying," Hus says of his debut official. "I knew when I came out I wanted to make music that meant something, that lifted the spirit. I don't want to just be the guy who makes wavy tunes for the club. I love that too, but I wanted a balance. I want to be the most diverse act, I want to be that all-round guy."
Here, Hus talks i-D through each track on his brand new album, Common Sense.
"This was one of the first songs to come about. JAE5 had started a little beat and I started rapping to it, just freestyling. The Compozers came through and added the live instruments and it was just a vibe. I wanted to start the album very confidentially. I wanted to reaffirm myself as a rapper -- I've got bars! This and Closed Door were the first two tracks I wrote for the album. It's also the album's title because it's common sense to listen to J Hus! It just makes so much sense. Everyone has to listen to me. Why would you listen to anything else?"
"In my area, bouff means money. Whenever I go back to my area, everyone calls me the bouff man, or the bouff daddy. It's the nickname my friend's gave me, and it stuck and I saw that it could make a sick tune. A lot of the words I use, a lot of people might not know what they mean, so you have to listen to the music to catch on, to work it out. To me, it's normal; it's just how we've always spoken in east London.
There's a line that goes, 'I hate the attention, nah be honest, I love it'. I love it and I hate it at the same time. Sometimes I'll be out with my friends and eating and I don't want to be disturbed. But you have to realise that you put yourself out there so you have to take it. It's what you signed up for. I'm bare grateful, and I love it, but sometimes it can be a pain."
"You see me, I'm a Gemini, so I don't believe in all of that stuff but some of it is true. I do have a lot of mixed emotions. So right now this second I'm laughing, happy, smiling. The next minute I just want to do something crazy. When I get crazy, it's just how I feel -- clartin'."
"That's the smoking track, although I'm actually trying to stop smoking. But I can't lie, I write some of my best shit under the influence. I get all these crazy ideas, but it's also a dickhead thing to smoke too, so I need to quit. Mostly 'cos the girl don't like it."
"When you record with live instruments, it makes it more emotional to rap. I could be talking the most mad crud, but when you have live instruments it just makes me more emotional. I don't know why, it's mad. You feel it more. You feel more spiritual; you just really feel the music. That track isn't really about any one person, I was just thinking about girls in general at that moment in time."
Did You See
"I went to this BBQ in the ends with my one friend in his black Benz, and my other mate picked me up in his white car and took me home (laughs). It's just what happened and I was singing that line the next day, and my manager was like 'That's hard, record that'. I went to the studio and recorded it. The word bunsah. That means… hmm… it's a code name for something, I can't really say too much. You have to work that out for yourself."
Like Your Style
"Yeah that's me being very cheeky -- I do get certain mums moving to me on the street you know. I recorded this track the day I came back from doing a show in Dublin. The whole time I was there people kept saying, 'What's the craic, what's the story', so I put that in the track. There's something about that place that gives me so much inspiration. I like Ireland, it's lovely. The girls there are crazy, man."
"When I recorded this, I was really after that original UKG sound. At that moment in time I was thinking about the Streets, [Mike Skinner] was really in my mind. I was really into him, very influenced by him, so I wanted something that sounded like Original Pirate Material. I liked that he didn't really care - the way he rapped was like he was just speaking to you. I liked that carefree style, and that's what inspired this tune. Lyrically, I'm saying, don't think I'm shy 'cos I'm quiet. I'm plottin' and blottin' (laughs). Usually I'm a quiet guy, when I go places people always ask me why I'm so shy, but I'm not actually a shy person though -- just know when I'm quiet I'm up to something. I'm just minding my own business, plotting."
"The bunda is just a bazz, that's what the bunda is. That one is about me and my friends like, 'Fuck all this hustling, let's go meet a girl and have a good time'. At the end I'm telling a girl to bring a girl for my friend. So it's one of them, innit, a double date with my friend. I'm alright on a date. I might take them to like Benihana's, you know. I'll go everywhere. I've taken someone to Nando's before. Whatever is whatever."
Fisherman ft. MoStack & MIST
"It's a girl track. When I first started out, you get a lot of offers and you get gassed, but that's not really me. I'm a guy that can only speak to one girl at a time. So right now, I'm speaking to one girl, and one girl only. It's quality, not quantity. Fisherman is about her really, that song is about my girl. That track came out of writer's block. I came out [of prison] June 16th and went to start the album that day. But then I got writers' block for June and July. Total writer's block. I just didn't know what to say. I felt like I was just saying the same old things. So I left it and then one day I sat down and thought, 'let me just say anything, whatever comes into my mind, and just go from there'. I was chilling with MoStack and MIST; they're in the studio, vibing together, making verses. I'm sat on my own thinking, 'what am I gonna say? I decided to say whatever was on my mind. So I'm wearing a fisherman's hat and that's where the whole inspiration for the tune came from (laughs) -- what I was wearing. I ran with it, and that's how I broke the writer's block. It was what I'd been doing before, I just hadn't realised it. I think I just needed to take a little break, to think about stuff and enjoy life, find inspiration and live some experiences. I write off experience so when I'm sitting in the studio, not doing nothing but smoking my life away, I've got nothing to write about. So I know that I have to live and experience stuff and then come back to the studio."
Good Time ft. Burna Boy
"Burna Boy is a wavy, wavy, wavy artist from Nigeria. He's very big in Nigeria. He's a cool brudda. He's very wavy. I've been a fan of him for a very long time. I've met him in Nigeria and over here and he's a proper guy. We've got a big hit on his album too - it's better than the tune on my album, to be honest! Obviously I do a lot of the Afrobeats; African music right now is hot, it's gonna get rinsed out, become pop and then something else will come along. When that happens, I'll do something new. I'm a creative guy."
"I made this one to keep everyone's head up. I was in a situation before, when I was in prison or whatever, and I wanted to make a tune that could be on the radio. When I was in prison I used to listen to a lot of radio, so I thought if I could make a tune that would go on radio then I could almost talk to myself, like, myself in prison. I listened to a lot of tunes in prison on the radio that were good, they were alright, but I wanted a song that could really resonate. So if any of my tunes from this album get played on radio, it's great, but if Spirit gets played on radio then I'm going to be so happy. It's a song that's about keeping your head up; we all go through stress, but keep going. I wanted a song that had a good message, and that's the one. Prison, I learnt a lot in prison you know. I learnt I don't want to go back (laughs). I don't want to go there again. I learnt how much I love music and how much I love doing music. Before that experience, I had a negative mindset. I saw a lot of people in [prison] who were in there for way worse things than my situation so it helped me to understand that I needed to have a much better, more positive mindset. It taught me a lot. All the time I'm sitting there and planning; I knew when I came out I wanted to make music that meant something, that lifted the spirit. I don't want to just be the guy who makes wavy tunes for the club. I love that too, but I wanted a balance. I want to be the most diverse act, I want to be that all-round guy."
Mash Up ft. MoStack
"That was a good vibe, a wavy track. See me, I don't really handle drink good; I'm a really big lightweight, so give me a couple of drinks and I really will mash up the place (laughs). I'll end up getting sick and a bit stupid - I'm a smoker, not a drinker."
"That's another aggressive one. I just felt like I needed to jump into the music and take everything. For that one, I was just wanted to jump in and rob the game for all the goodies. I want all the money! Money motivates me a lot because I like to spend. I spend without thinking. I don't really care about money to be honest, I just want to get what I want. If I have my mind set on something, I have to get it. So it's not that I care about money itself, it's more what it can do for you."
Good Luck Charle ft. Tiggs Da Author
"It's a Ghanaian thing - it's Charlie, but Ghanaian's says 'Chale'. When Tiggs came to the studio, I said to him that I wanted to make something similar to [50 Cent's] Many Men. I told him about this one experience I had in a certain incident. As soon as I told him the story he went straight into the booth and just said that line. I was like, 'Oh my god. It was mad!' It's basically me saying, they want to get me, but they're never gonna get me, good luck to them, they want to get me but I'm gonna keep shining, I'm gonna keep doing me. They can't stop me."
Who You Are
"That's one of my favourites. That moment in time, I was a little bit depressed, a bit down. Everyone thinks it's easy being a rapper and all that, so I wanted to talk about the downsides. It's another good message -- find out who you are by the company that you keep. I always want to drop these messages in to help people learn. I don't always want to make people dance. I want them to listen to the album and continuously feel different emotions throughout the whole experience. Who You Are is a thinking one. I'm saying everything on my mind, getting a closer look at J Hus' inner thinkings. I think it's important 'cos it's relatable -- everyone goes through these things so they can relate to you. You can't always be talking about the pop star life! It's important to show people that you're human."
"I didn't want that track on there to be honest. I wanted the album to be fresh, everything new. To me, that song is so old; I want to move off from that. But the label said I had to! They wanted to put Lean & Bop on there too but I said no way, so Friendly was the compromise. I kind of get it more now though; I think it's good to see how I've grown; the evolution of Hus."
Common Sense is out 12 May.
Text Hattie Collins
Images Olivia Rose