Wretch 32's 1Xtra Freestyle Is Staggering, So Why Are His Singles so Bait?

He silenced Charlie Sloth, a feat no one thought was possible.

Dec 14 2015, 5:06pm

Anyone who has listened to Fire in the Booth regularly, or even just had it on once in the background while they were doing something else in the kitchen, will know Charlie Sloth likes to gas up a quality verse when he hears it. Explosions, bombs, yelps, table slaps, “PERFECT!”

But on Friday night, he was stopped in his tracks, hunched over in his chair, a pale white face of shock, like a monk who just saw God in a stained cloth.

Once he got his breath back, Sloth labelled the Wretch 32 freestyle he’d just witnessed, “the hardest verse Fire in the Booth has ever had.” That might be pushing it a bit, but you can’t argue that Wretch delivers four minutes of far-reaching bars that veer from confessional to confrontational, flipping from police tasers to childhood nightmares via the Icarus-like pursuit of fame.

Wretch's turn included water-themed bars that rubbish the growth of streaming services, when the returns for artists are still squalid. Another line uses Jay Z album and song titles to spell a narrative about becoming the bossman: “I’m trying to lay the blueprint and give you reasonable doubt so when you watch the throne they can see me change clothes”. There’s enough hot pressed into these four minutes to give a Rap Genius annotator rheumatoid arthritis. Young rapper Avelino, who went before him, spent the rest of the session blinking appreciatively into the distance, like a rabbit at a rave.

So why the hell is Wretch not delivering fire like this on the regular? Since the early days of The Movement, he’s has always had a reputation for bringing layers and complexity into his rhymes. He was a character on the scene, who would happily war dub Wiley; a rapper’s rapper, as the saying goes, with more vocabulary than three seasons of Countdown. You only need to listen back to his debut studio album Black and White to hear shrewd, all-seeing lyrics that became prescient within days of its release, as the London riots swept the capital.

But all that has changed over the years. His new single “Alright With Me” is bouncy and feel good, but it’s soft as trifle, with a daytime radio hook from pop vocals for hire Anne-Marie. Last year’s “6 Words” was equally PG-rated. So, seeing Wretch 32 drop something like Friday night’s freestyle was so unexpected it almost felt jarring, like watching Macklemore Jekyll and Hyde himself into Kendrick for an evening.

Wretch has never fully commanded the respect of the scene that birthed him, controversially snubbed at the MOBOs in 2012, despite having more commercial success than most UK musicians would manage in a lifetime. In a recent interview with YouTube channel Not For The Radio in November, he dropped a few home truths that explained a way quite a few things I’ve always found perplexing about his path. He said his early success had become a curse, as his label become more obsessed with the singles than releasing a body of work. He said that every year he finishes an album and a half of material that usually never sees the light of day for “reasons out of my control.”

But things have changed in the past few years, UK rappers are getting a lot more creative freedom and still finding success, so you wonder why Wretch still feels the need to dumb down his output for the charts. “You best believe that I’m a general” he spat during Friday night's freestyle, “cos one of us has got to compete at all the festivals”, sounding as though he's developed a certain entrepreneurial cynicism after a decade in the mainstream; giving the label what they want (top ten singles) whilst almost siphoning off his undisputed lyrical talent for passion projects (like the forthcoming mixtape with his protege Avelino) and guest verses (see J Warner’s “Chill Chase” from earlier in the year).

Of course, these commercial big licks give him the freedom to do other things, and make shit happen that would otherwise be impossible. With his Fire in the Booth, he announced that forthcoming mixtape, one that will probably be free from the interference of his label. But even Wretch, deep down, seems to suspect that his big numbers fanbase won't actually care about it, asking on one of Friday's verses, “How much of my fans might just not buy my new stuff?”

Skip to 4.09 to hear Wretch's freestyle uninterrupted, but for the full context, watch the whole thing with Avelino's bars and Sloth's shock included.