“I’ve been mad busy chasing this dream,” Wretch 32 tells me, his voice flecked with a mixture of well-earned confidence and tired, reflective happiness. Back at the beginning of this year, the razor-sharp rapper and grime MC was hailed by many as a voice to watch out for in 2011; now, as the year pales into its end, we’ve watched, we’ve heard, and we know exactly who he is. Still only twenty-six years old, there’s plenty more for Wretch to achieve, but there’s no denying he’s had an incredible twelve months.
His mention of dream-chasing comes up as he’s telling me about his latest single, ‘Forgiveness’, a collaboration with Etta Bond taken from the debut album Black and White. Gentler than hit singles ‘Traktor’ and ‘Unorthodox’, Wretch describes it as “one of them songs that’s completely honest. It’s my heart on my sleeve.” Honesty and heart are buzz-words in this interview; scarcely a question goes by without Wretch assuring me in his response of the genuine, open quality of his work. Realness has always been a conscious hang-up for hip hop artists, and in 2011 that trope has taken on an entirely new life, leading to the façade-eroding candidness of artists like Drake – who Wretch admits he’s a big fan of – and the listless ramblings of genre-crossers like Ghostpoet. Wretch 32 takes this theme and runs with it, aiming to colour his work with the flush of real life experience; “I’m inspired by everyday life – my main concept is just being honest. I write about things that everyone’s experienced – I want to paint a picture, to bring people back to that place.”
When I ask about the overwhelming feedback Wretch has had for Black and White, his voice is enthusiastic with gratefulness, with emphasis placed on his almost child-like humility. “[Black and White] is the album that I wanted to make; I put my heart and soul into it. It’s good to know that people can really hear that.” Standing out amongst those who have rushed to praise the rapper this year is Adele, who apparently lives fifteen minutes away from him in his home town of Tottenham. The hushed, humble voice is gone as Wretch launches into a high-pitched impression of Adele’s apparently ear-splitting, warbling speaking voice – “you live daaaan maa road don’t ya” – but he’s all big-eyed seriousness as he sings her praises. “An artist doesn’t have to big up another artist, so when she goes out of her way to do that, it means a lot.” The connection is important to the MC, who says that “where you’re from is who you are, it’s how you walk, how you talk. It’s shaped who I am as a person.”
Wretch 32 is not a man who’s short of friends in high places, after all, which is plain to see for anyone who takes a cursory glance at his album’s track list. Laden with collaborations, he’s clearly an artist who thrives on the feedback and input of others, bringing the best out of his fellow performers and allowing them to help bring the best out of him. It’s not a forced process, he stresses, but something which arises naturally in the creative process. Rather than calling up an artist to arrange a collaboration without any idea what that collaboration might be, Wretch says, “I listen to the song first, and I think ‘that sounds like a gap for Tinie Tempah’ or ‘that sounds like a chorus Example could sing’.” He has a good ear for the sounds of others, and how those fragments can fit into the overall vibe he’s carving for himself.
There’s a similar treasure-hunt theme going on with the genre of the album, which Wretch describes as not only hip hop, but infused with reggae, grime, soul and “elements of everything I liked growing up.” Without a hint of self-doubt he tells me that it’s “a new sound, a new vibe, it’s a new thing”, emphasising that he wants to not only create honest, emotional music, but to have fun with his storytelling, leading to tracks like the latest release with Tinie Tempah and J. Cole, ‘Like It or Love It’. “I can rap on any beat that I like,” Wretch tells me; there’s a laugh never far from his voice, but there’s also a genuine calm collectedness that holds his words together, and makes me believe him. All he needs to create a great song is a beat he can enjoy and an experience he wants to share; and as long as he has those ingredients, he’ll be one to watch for years and years to come.