There’s a myriad of Mancunian references on Aitch’s new album. That’s hardly surprising. Close to Home is indeed an ode to the 22-year-old’s hometown.
Take the track ‘1989’, which not only segues from the previous ‘Louis Vuitton’ via a Shaun Ryder quip about drunken nights out, but is even named after the year The Stone Roses’ ‘Fool’s Gold’ – the track it heavily samples – was released. (Ryder had, according to Aitch, agreed to the feature in exchange for four cans of Guinness, which is a fair trade in my books).
Then there’s the cover for the special edition vinyl of the record, created by Central Station, the design company known for the vibrant artwork and posters for Factory Records and the Madchester scene of the early 90s.
Aitch and his team will want to put the backlash earlier this week sparked by their covering-up of an Ian Curtis mural in the city’s Northern Quarter to bed, but on the whole you get the gist. This is an album firmly rooted in Manchester.
The problem, though, is how far it goes, lyrically, thematically and sonically; whether, like those great predecessors of the scene it references, it offers something new. On the whole, it fails to do so. But that’s not to say it’s without some strong moments.
Like the lead single ‘Baby’, which also features heavy sampling of a well-known track (Ashanti’s ‘Rock Wit U’), there’s nothing enormously original, save for being delivered through the prism of Manchester’s rising cheeky-chappie rapper.
On the aforementioned ‘Louis Vuitton’, for instance, Aitch, whose real name is Harrison Armstrong, boasts about having “came from the sewers, got busy and made me a change / Spring up the booth / And look great when I do it”. On ‘Money Habits’, which although has one of the best features on the album in Mastermind, Aitch flaunts that “money’s the drug I’m addicted to / Ex-girl text me, she miss me / But she won’t give me the feelin’ the fifties do.” ‘Fuego’, meanwhile, will probably soundtrack many a lad’s holiday in Ayia Napa.
No doubt it’s been a heady few years for the youngster since he muscled his way into the charts with tracks like ‘Straight Rhymez’. Indeed, a cameo on opener ‘BelgraveRoad_1’ from Aitch’s father urging him to do his expenses “rapido”, reminds us of the rapper’s juvenescence. But there are many moments where the lyricism lacks a certain depth or wisdom that often comes with maturity.
That said, the superior moments in the album occur when Aitch talks about the issues most personal to him. ‘100x’, with its sultry-sounding guitar and high-pitch vocal chorus, depicts the pitfalls and eventual breakup of a relationship under pressure when your fame is rising. And no, it isn’t about Amelia Dimoldenberg, no matter how much the rumours they were dating were pushed. (“If I lost it all, would it still be love? Would you call, could we still be us? If I put it on pause, would it kill the trust?” Aitch asks).
‘My G’ might not bear Ed Sheeran’s most compelling feature, but having on your debut album is still quite a coup, and the track is rather touchingly devoted to Aitch’s younger sister Grace, who has down syndrome.
AJ Tracey also makes a respectable appearance, on the track ‘R Kid’. However, in truth many of these tracks are best listened to in isolation and those two big features mentioned, you expect, will stand them in good stead in the singles’ charts. Ultimately, though, this is an album that suffers from a slightly disjointed approach.
There’s attempts at trap (‘Louis Vuitton’, ‘Fuego’), neo-soul riffs (‘Sunshine’) and more commercially focussed rap. None of it sounds particularly inspired by sounds and genres to devise something new – don’t forget, ‘Fool’s Gold’ was already sampled by Wretch 32 on the track ‘Unorthodox’ more than a decade ago.
Instead, you feel, it’s a stick-on-the-wall approach, attempting to reach fans of certain subsets. Aitch has spent a fair bit of time positioning himself (or, more likely, being positioned, by others) as the new face of British rap. He’s done a good job of that, not least becoming one of the poster-boys for Lynx.
But such commercial success has to be backed-up by artistic accomplishment, to stand a chance of gaining any respectability. After his eagerly-awaited debut album, it sounds like there’s a lot further Aitch can go than being Close To Home.
Close To Home is out now via Capitol Records