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By James Benge
When OxStu last met Tinie at the start of 2010, he was just one of a number of young rappers tipped for great things in the year to come. But whilst the likes of Giggs have not found the success their undoubted talent deserves, this has very much been the year of Tinie Tempah. At the time of writing he has sold the most singles in the UK this year, achieving two number ones and following that with Disc-Overy, which sold over 85,000 copies in its first week. So when he begins praising the audience for their ‘success’ during his talk at the Oxford Union it is hard not to think: ‘Well, how many of the other 21 year-olds in this room have had a number one?’
It’s worth raising success because it seems to be something that is very important to Tinie, at least according to his Facebook page, where it is listed as his sole personal interest. Whilst he admits that this is, of course, a bit tongue-in-cheek it is interesting to discuss what he understands by success: “I guess it’s a bit of everything really. I always wanted to be a pop star and sell a lot of records but at the same time I think it’s important that you maintain your credibility and that people respect your work.”
This will remain a significant dichotomy in Tinie’s career whilst he continues to sell so many records. It’s rare that collaborating with Swedish House Mafia has ever increased an artist’s standing within the grime community. Does he feel that artists like Roll Deep represent grime chasing the quick hit of pop music and sacrificing artistic credibility?
“Different artists have different interpretations of the mainstream, which is why you see some artists being so successful. Their interpretations of the mainstream differ. But it’s not really selling out, is it? I mean this is what they want.’
Yet Tinie should have no reason to worry about his credibility at the moment. What cannot be denied is that ‘Pass Out’ and ‘Frisky’ represent two of the best pop singles of the year. And what both these singles have in common is the presence of Labrinth, whose work with Tinie has catapulted him to fame, something that he seems justifiably proud of, claiming that “right now pop music is all about the future”.
If there is one aspect of his music that has made Tinie Tempah stand out from his contemporaries it has been his magnificent way with words, indeed he may rank as the most unique chronicler of British life since Jarvis Cocker. Eventually, his Q&A at the Union descends into people asking him whether he has yet been to Scunthorpe or would risk it for a chocolate biscuit. Compare this to the lyrical content of other songs that constitute the staple diet of the Oxford clubbing scene, and it becomes clear why Tinie Tempah is such an important pop star. But I’m more interested in what he has to say on album track ‘Let Go’, with its line, “Tell me of the pleasures of being a normal citizen/ Cause all these fittings and Viviennes keeping me from fitting in”. Is Tinie tired of being famous already? He claims not, stating that this song is about “coming to terms with fame”.
It also throws up another question which is surely going to be asked of Tempah: how will he be able to keep writing songs about ordinary life when his life has already become so, well, ‘unordinary’? “But I do have the same sort of lifestyle as you,” Tinie argues. “I’m sure you and I both go clubbing, we both talk about similar things when we’re with our friends, and we both have similar romantic experiences. All these things are what inform my music.”
I am not entirely certain I believe Tinie Tempah on this occasion. One need only look at the ever-decreasing standard of Mike Skinner’s output to know that fame does not gel with writing about real life. But for now we should be celebrating one of Britain’s most unique rappers and an artist who is capable of taking his success in 2010 and becoming a true star.