There’s a bar on ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ – the second track on SONGER’s newly released third album – that sums up his unique creative path. “I never grew up in no grime scene / Had James Morrison playing on headphones,” he raps, tracing an unusual route from the outskirts of Reading to the upper echelons of a flourishing underground UK rap scene.
The 22-year-old’s hometown meant he stumbled across rap, rather than growing up heavily exposed to artists like Kano or D Double E (who he recently collaborated with on ‘04.59’). That outsider perspective has helped James Songer – whose musical surname handily gave him the perfect stage name – create an open-minded sound that veers between old-school hip-hop, UK garage, DnB, grime, and more, uniting ideas with a strong, discernible voice, characterised by brilliant wordplay and a knack for tackling deep issues with serious heart.
After bursting onto most fans’ radars in 2018 with a Bl@ckbox Freestyle which remains one of the channel’s most successful videos ever, SONGER’s steady releases have showcased a serious talent for intertwining deep, personal storytelling with sharp, witty wordplay and the kind of playful rap hedonism displayed by the likes of Aitch or Central Cee.
A cult following of fans was fostered further by SONGER’s decision to flesh out a connection over Zoom meetings during lockdown. The fact that last autumn’s ‘Story So Far’ tour sold out in just two hours is a testament to that bond — and with SKALA, those fans have been rewarded with his most cohesive body of work yet.
Discussing SKALA, an album named after his dog and shaped by an attempt to mirror her positive, present-minded outlook, the rapper recently told NME “It’s definitely a more uplifting album,” as he finds himself in “the best headspace I’ve ever been in in my life.”
That perspective comes through in the contented, sincere voice present across the project’s 16 tracks. SONGER isn’t wrapped up in the troubled relationship that fuelled ‘I’d Rather You Cheat’ or the grief-induced depression behind ‘Dream Of You’; instead, being able to look back on past struggles from a healthier headspace adds a sense of clarity to his lyrics.
The track that best reflects that shift is ‘Dancing in the Rain’, a pensive dive into the relationships and experiences that have shaped the Reading MC over the years. It’s packed with clusters of clever, personal bars like “My parents are the reason I’m not scared of getting old / My audience the reason I find comfort being vulnerable”, demonstrating a penchant for concise, powerful confession.
There’s a deeply positive energy at the core of those lyrics, but if you’re looking for pure fun, search no further than lead single ‘That’s Money’; it’s all vibrant sax samples, cheery party chanting, and bouncing half-time beats and claps, with unapologetically feelgood lyrics like “Laughing it off, still drunk in the morning… still clean, still looking like money”.
That same vibe dominates the album’s first single, and probably its greatest track, the aforementioned ‘04.59’. Built around a whirring pad loop and a choppy UK garage beat, it’s a dancefloor classic for the summer, and the explosive entrance of East London grime legend D Double for a quick, skippy 16 at the track’s end is the icing on the cake – and a testament to how far SONGER has come.
It’s SONGER’s ability to merge these light-hearted, high-spirited party tunes with deeper takes on mental health and difficult conversations, while retaining a clear vocal style that’s marked by clever wordplay and an undeniable self-confidence, that makes his voice engaging.
His sound isn’t connected by genre, and you could argue that a more specific sonic focus would create an even more distinct sense of artistry. But for SONGER, his eclectic, far-reaching vision is his USP. And on SKALA, he’s used that vision to offer up some of the best storytelling of his career so far.