Potter Payper unleashes evocative, polished storytelling on his debut album, Real Back in Style, detailing the life experiences that landed him in jail.
“I make choices you don’t have to and live with things average humans couldn’t fathom”, were the words scribbled across Potter Payper’s Instagram post in late April detailing his recent arrest. Since his release from prison in June 2020, it’s looked as though the architect of road rap anthems like ‘Gangsteritus’ and iconic freestyles on channels like Daily Duppy and Behind Barz might’ve finally left the criminal world behind.
But as fans take in his long-awaited debut album Real Back in Style, Jamel Bousbaa – aka Potter Payper – can only watch on from a cell. It’s a sad situation that emphasises how, regardless of any fame or fortune the Essex rapper acquires, he’s still ultimately a product of his environment.
“If I was given love instead of locked up so young, I probably wouldn’t have been a shitbag,” he raps on ‘All My Life, If I Had…’, capturing that point powerfully. The track recounts the story of his ancestors, from his Algerian father’s strolls in the North African sun to his Irish republican grandad’s struggles with alcohol and his own experiences in the juvenile detention centres.
It’s a sprawling look at the historical events, characters, and experiences that have left Potter Payper where he is today – as such. It perfectly embodies the essence of Real Back in Style. A wide-ranging documentation of a momentous journey, it’s a project packed with moving stories from start to finish.
Perhaps the most potent narrative of all appears on ‘Money Or Victims? (Kayla’s Story)’, a heartbreaking dive into the vicious cycle of abuse and addiction plaguing the Barking streets Potter grew up on. “Am I making money or just victims?” he raps, reflecting on the consequences of dealing hard drugs to struggling, vulnerable people.
A sequence of traumatic events is recounted, topped by the cathartic sucker-punch story of Potter beating up his childhood friend’s abusive uncle Steve down a back alley. “I said you scumbug nonce / I’m a friend of your niece,” he barks in his distinctive grating, aggressive vocal tone.
That voice, made iconic by the rapper’s super popular ‘Training Day’ mixtape series, is given tons of space to attack the mic on Real Back in Style. Across the album, Potter’s growling bars rise above intensely atmospheric, cinematic UK hip-hop beats incorporating dark, twisting string compositions, melancholy piano refrains, and the odd burst of whining, distorted rock guitar.
There are stirring, low pass-filtered gospel choir samples on the opening track and ‘Multifaceted’, which inject real soul and heart, with swelling pads and thick, swaying hip-hop beats chipping in to provide the perfect accompaniment to Potter’s crisp vocals.
Addiction and abuse are just a couple of the countless socio-political issues Potter explores on the album, his unique set of experiences helping to shape a powerful perspective on subjects like poverty, incarceration, cracks in the welfare system, sacrifice, and loss. His delivery is angry and direct, the underlying sentiment being: who would I be if I wasn’t born into this oppressive system?
Real Back in Style presents Potter Payper’s trademark style of impassioned, fiery road rap storytelling in a tighter, more cohesive format than ever before. His narratives are cleverly woven, the instrumentals behind them powerful and expansive. Crucially, he departs from the mixtape framework that handed him success, swapping hard standalone tracks for a song sequence that builds a strong continuous narrative arc, connected by smooth transitions and themes of inequality, hardship, and struggling through to the other side.
The tone throughout is ‘us against the world’, and given the ‘Multifaceted’ rapper’s background, it’s understandable. Regardless of the difficult position he’s in now, Potter Payper’s gritty storytelling ability means he’s harnessed that embattled outlook for good.