A Sociologist on Grime, the Sociology of Bugzy Malone | Album Review of B. Inspired

B. Inspired is the latest album by Manchester grime artist Bugzy Malone. Musically, the album is consistently solid, with some standout songs that contain hooks and choruses which are certain to evoke passionate crowd sing-alongs at the massive gigs surely following Bugzy’s continuing success. I have been a fan of Bugzy for years, not just for his musical talent, but his lyrical honesty and the accurate social commentary contained therein. As hip hop becomes the pop of our times, certain messages that are key to the genre are increasingly becoming tropes- tropes Bugzy goes beyond.

Firstly, fundamental to the genre is the vision of modern life as a game or competition. Moreover, this game is rigged, especially if you belong to certain groups- most often in the US dominated mainstream, black people. Bugzy’s music, while careful not to delve too much into the political implications of its commentary, perhaps unconsciously confessing an understanding of how the line between social and political is extremely blurry, attempts to bridge gaps around certain identities and encourage solidarities based on place- and often hence social class.

Secondly, following from this conception of life as a game is the theme of cynical hedonism which runs throughout mainstream hip pop. There is a certain irony with Bugzy’s work as it tries to articulate how the individualistic striving to “make it”, what us sociologists might call becoming “upwardly socially mobile”, doesn’t negate feelings of solidarity with one’s social origins. Bugzy’s lyrics bragging about fast cars and “million pound houses” seem to contradict lyrics that aggrandise those with nothing, yet this is simply a reflection of real social contradictions in our society, and lingering shadows of religious contradiction in our cultural subconscious.

The new album starts and ends with direct messages to the audience. It opens by revealing that this album is intended for a particular audience from similar lower social origins as Bugzy, also revealing his awareness of his reach and the potential for music to inspire others, just as he was. It ends with thanks to fans and those in the background that helped make Bugzy a success and overall shows that this album was something more personal and highlights his desire to leave a legacy deeper than being a rich chart-topper.

The first full track Warning is immediately upbeat and a far cry from the slow personal address to the audience in the introduction. The quick and combatitive style tells the audience that although Bugzy has a sentimental side, his persona is still a streetsmart hardman that doesn’t take any shit from anyone but with a tongue-in-cheek awareness of how this persona is part of the game of UK grime- Bugzy isn’t a criminal anymore.

The following track Ordinary People ft. JP Cooper is one of the most socially conscious and revealing tracks on the album, which especially appeals to me qua sociologist, as it connects the behaviour of certain social strata with their situation. It contains a fervent rebuttal against the hyper individualistic moralising of mainstream narratives about the choices made by the socially oppressed- claiming “I don’t condone it, but I understand the stealing and violence” and going on to imagine easily believable scenarios of lives of the British underclass. It’s a song about solidarity coming from experience, the harsh reality of poverty in one of the world’s richest nations, and sympathy for how choices are never made in isolation- “would you not grab the painkiller with both hands?”

Next up Die By The Gun furthers the sympathetic understanding of how people from the underclass turn criminal. Bugzy talks about the ease with which one can fall into criminal behaviours out of desperation and how it quickly turns into a way of life. It is a critique of the myopic individualism of such a life, which like other addictions, can quickly turn catastrophic which also reveals a deeper understanding of how our life outcomes can hinge on, for lack of a better word, luck. Again, there are conflicting messages about how choices make who we are so we should be inspired to work hard for our goals, yet Bugzy also understands that he was particularly lucky to have turned around his life.

The following track Drama although musically decent, for me lacks the lyrical depth of other tracks. Still, it is faithful to the genre and is filled with egocentric posturing that can be perhaps taken as a bit of comic relief in contrast to the grimly serious tone of the tracks surrounding it. There is a similar vibe in Done His Dance and later Come Through and Submarine where Bugzy maintains the classic grime persona of being a gangsta that made it- just because he reveals a soft side sometimes, his rivals would do well to remember his origins.

Run ft. Rag‘n’Bone Man sharply returns to the central theme of B. Inspired– arguably social mobility, “making it”. This track again sets out the grim reality of life in the underclass and begins to bring in a critique of those at the bottom who in their own defeat, use what little energy they have after survival to keep others down. It is a lower-class parallel to the Thatcherism “let your poppies grow tall”. I think this especially appeals to Bugzy’s intended audience as a response to the lack of ambition fostered in people with working-class origins without the moralism or shallow workerism of today’s political left- again remaining at the blurry fringe between social and political. It is therapy to combat the psychological aspects of class neglected in mainstream discourses which admits that social mobility is a struggle, full of contradictions, but that’s life and Bugzy’s audience knows it.

Following Run, the track Separation ft. Maverick Sabre looks back on Bugzy’s life before success and how it formed who he is today. With a Bourdieusian lens we can see here how this is, admittedly extremely shallow and limited by the medium, the start of a kind of socio-analysis. Bugzy reflects on the separation between his past self, coming with a certain set of social relationships that are determined by his social position. This kind of analysis which removes guilt by looking at the aspects of our experience which are beyond our control runs all the way through the entire album and there is even reference to a naive version of what we might call habitus. As Bugzy puts it in one interview:

“When you’re put into a position of survival because you don’t have something, then it’s put into instinctively, it’s kind of built into you. So the way I am, it’s kind of built into me, as opposed to being a choice like ‘I’m going to be like this for a certain reason, I didn’t really get an option. It is what it is.”

The next track Heart ft. Not3s continues the introspective detour from the heavy social commentary and classic grime to tell the story of Bugzy himself. The bridge in this track is exceptional with perfectly timed pauses that set the sexy tone which shows Bugzy has the versatility to compete with the sexual currents in hip pop. Combined with the expert wordplay and excellently matched contribution from Not3s, this track is a shining example of Bugzy’s range.

The eleventh track on the album Death Do Us Part harkens back to earlier massive success Beauty and the Beast by revealing a romantic side to Bugzy that goes beyond the often vulgar and misogynistic discourses about women as material rewards prevalent in hip pop. Here Bugzy is once again made vulnerable by revealing that beneath the bravado of his gangster persona, the artistic ambition includes a classic appreciation of romance and the gangster value of loyalty reflects a personal valuing of commitment.

Before Bugzy’s final address to the listener, the last full track is Street Life ft. Laura White. This track is full of references to older tracks by Bugzy, but far from being lazy, these are used to emphasise how certain experiences in his life are fundamental to who he is today. Family and education in sociology are the primary socialising forces which make a person and Bugzy is well aware of that.

B. Inspired is one of the best albums to be released this year and I think there is a lot of sociological content that I think can be connected to it. I hope with this article to inspire anyone interested in studying sociology to see the power of it to change your outlook and encourage you to look deeper into things you enjoy. Not only will you find opportunities to learn more in more places, I think you come to appreciate cultural products more and connect with artists who you might feel you share experiences with.

Of course, I was never a gangsta, but I grew up not too far away from those things. I’ve been completely poor, I’ve suffered psychologically, and I’ve seen how the true underclass of today lives. I empathise with their retreat from conscious life into drugs and crime. If some people connect with music enough to be inspired to make different choices, even keeping in mind the restrictions of social class etc., as much as it’s not overall changing the system, surely it’s better than allowing them to drop out of society completely.

I feel like I could continue writing about this album, Bugzy Malone, and especially Manchester as I have lived there before when I was completely broke, but this is already terribly long for an album review.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s