Over the years, the U.K. has exported a bountiful amount of talent. While Sam Smith and Adele might be the first names that come to mind, the rap scene has molded several notable talents to shake up the status quo at home and overseas.
Enter 31-year-old Wretch 32, an English rapper and grime star born Jermaine Sinclair, who has quickly seized the throne as one of the U.K.'s shining stars on the mic. His candor and lethal pen game shined especially in 2011 when he scored three top five records on the U.K.'s Official Singles Chart including "Traktor", "Unorthdox" and "Don't Go" from his major-label debut, Black and White. After piecing together an impeccable project with several highlights, like his tender tune "Anniversary" and his inspirational banger "Don't Be Afraid," the Jamaican MC took his time to strategize how he would wow his audience next.
Over the next five years, Wretch embarked on a tireless journey that consisted of numerous tours around Britain, while perfecting his next album. After a few minor setbacks and promotional singles, he sculpted his latest endeavor, Growing Over Life, which dropped in September. The entire project -- which is imbued with honesty and triumph -- allows fans to not only peek into Wretch's scars and vulnerabilities, but fearlessly walk alongside him as he plays tour guide to his once-melancholy beginnings. "Antwi," for instance, finds Wretch ruminating about his early days as a young boy and how a fortuitous turn of events prevented him from being a victim of a vicious drive-by.
Now as a grown man, Wretch's biggest battles aren't overcoming the menacing streets of his childhood; it's winning the people over and challenging himself every day to grow as an untouchable MC. Billboard spoke with Wretch 32 about his new album Growing Over Life, his collaborator wish list and why respect means more to him than accolades.
Normally, a lot of people would consider their first album as their most important body of work in their career, but you said that this album was the project you've been waiting to make your whole lifetime. Why is this album more significant than the previous ones you've made?
It's funny, because a lot of my records were mapped out. I think for myself, this was supposed to be the growth part of my career in terms of where I felt like I was going to be in age and knowledge. I felt like this one here would be the one that really defines where I'm going next. I think that the first one [Black and White] was a good start because I was just coming out the gate. We did it independent and it was one of those things where over here, it was considered a successful album. It went to No. 4 on the charts and whatnot. But I knew that with this one, it's like important to my career, just in terms of how I'm setting myself up, what I'm trying to say, and where I'm gonna be at, so that's why it was exciting for me.
How important was it for you to depict the black British experience?
It's important, man. I want people who come from my walk of life to identify with me. I also want people who don't come from my walk of life to understand the message. I want someone who has a totally different life from us to understand the message. It's almost like a fly-on-the-wall experience. It was important to me to soak this all in.
A huge plus on Growing Over Life was the high level of production. It was very soulful. You teamed up with Mikey Muzik and Mo Samuels for this project. How did their creativity spark new ideas for you while working on the album?
I think Mike and Mo are geniuses, man. They both come from a church, so obviously growing up in a church, they were trained to learn music, like their music has to have a high level of feeling. I get along with them as people. A lot of times, they were coming to my house and we were just rolling around to get in each other's head space, so we understood who we were as people as well. I think that was important. I never really done that process before with producers. They wanted to push me as much as I wanted to push them because we knew we had to make something that was solid, soulful and something people can definitely digest. Naturally, they're two gifted and talented brothers, and I don't think the album would come out the same without them so I'm grateful that they were a part of it.
One of the tracks that stood out was "Antwi." You rapped: "You can keep your merits, man, I come for distinctions." A lot of artists would probably say their goal is to chase accolades or Grammys, but why is it more important for you to gain respect?
I think respect lasts longer. I definitely think that once you're excellent at what you do, then accolades should follow, unless you were so far ahead of your time that it didn't get to catch up. It's funny because a couple of years ago, I did an interview with Rakim where he interviewed me and I had to interview him. It was just like a U.K./American critically acclaimed rapper type of thing. I was talking to him and the one thing that he said that stuck with me was that he's not envious at where the rappers are taking the game today like in terms of business structure and what Jay Z is doing now. People are doing different businesses, trying to open labels, go make Ciroc, etc. It was like, you kind of just made me realize that both are as important, but at the same time, if you're not as respected as Rakim or Jay Z, no one is going to want to go drink Ciroc from a one-hit wonder. You have to be respected to earn the right to do the other things. I think it's equally as important, but for me personally, I want the respect, man. I'm one of them rappers that every time I always pick up my pen, I want to spit the best verse that the world has ever heard. So, I want to be respected for my craft.
Some critics believe that if you were rapping in the States, you would have a very similar impact to that of a Kendrick Lamar or J. Cole. Do you agree with that sentiment?
I definitely think I'm as gifted, man. The genre of music that I'm doing was birthed over where you guys are [in the States], so naturally, we all look over there and listen to hear what's the new vibe. In terms of what I'm trying to do over here, I'm trying to bridge the gap. I'm trying to cross over. I've done different genres of music because I'm able to, and I'm as gifted. I just think that I'm a very spiritual [person]. I just believe that nothing happens before its time, so praise to the most high and one day, we'll be on the same track with each other. I've actually been on the same record as J. Cole on a record called "Like It or Love It" with Tinie Tempah. We gave them hell on that one, so check it out. [Laughs]
You have another record on the album called "Pressure," where you rap about receiving different levels of pressure from your mom, your son and then the slums. Who gives you the most pressure to succeed?
Myself. I think I'm more hard on myself than anyone is, because deep down, I know what I'm capable of. When I write a verse or finish an album, I know whether I'm capable of delivering a better project or better verse that day. When I don't feel like I've hit my peak on whatever I'm working on, I go back and better it until I'm satisfied because I don't think anyone else is going to be more hard on me than I am on myself.
You also managed to draw a parallel between good women and good food on your track "Cooked Food."
You know that typical black joke where people are always talking about how black people love chicken and that's like the first icebreaker to smooth out [the situation]? It's just one of those things that I kind of wanted to trick people because it was something they used to say to throw shade. It became some kind of a joke, so I kind of wanted to write a record about chicken and some people didn't realize what I was talking about, but they just loved the song, and wanted to get their hands on whatever I was talking about, thinking it was a joke. It's just something that I love to throw in the universe just to trick people into our ways of thinking.
At this juncture in your career, is there anybody from the U.S. that you would be interested in working with?
You know, I'm really feeling Dave East right now. I like the newness and I like the flavor that he's bringing. I also love Kendrick [Lamar], as well. On a full scale, I like someone like Travis [Scott]. He's definitely dope. And I really like Nipsey Hussle. I'd love to go back-to-back with someone like that.
Are you satisfied with the reception your project has received thus far?
You know what's funny? This kind of reminds me of my first album where whatever I do next kind of makes people go back to it. I like the vibe because the way I attacked the record, sounds like I'm going in. Everyone from this side of the water, the air is not necessarily catered to that. I know I'm kind of against the grain but it was something that I felt was the right thing to do, and it's what I wanna do. I can't really care about it too much because it's just gonna hinder what I do next. Just so often people catch up at some point. I shouldn't ever have to slow myself down just so people can catch up to me in the race that I'm running. I run it my way, man.