J Hus. Crowns & Owls
British rapper/singer-songwriter J Hus © Crowns & Owls

The outlaw is a stock figure in folk music around the world, celebrated for his (less often, her) lawbreaking ways. That is the backdrop to the figure of the “roadman” in UK rap. More precise antecedents include US gangsta rap and the “badman” of Jamaican ska and dance hall cultures.

There are frequent mentions of roadman life in J Hus’s new album, Big Conspiracy. “I’m fresh from war,” he raps at one point, then, later on: “I’m going back to the trenches.” “Helicopter” opens with police hovering overhead, or “feds” in the imprecisely Americanised slang of UK youth culture. (The UK police force is not federal; although, in a rare point of accord between police and roadmen, many officers would like it to be.)

Raised in London and Peterborough, J Hus — real name Momodou Lamin Jallow — has a history of involvement in gang violence, including being stabbed in 2015. In 2018, after his hit debut Common Sense had propelled him to the top ranks of UK music, he was imprisoned for knife possession. But real life should not be confused with the persona he adopts in the vocal booth, nor the richly imagined musical environment that his producer Jae5 creates for him.

Big Conspiracy blends African pop genres with Jamaican styles like dance hall and reggae and the sounds of US and UK rap; a distinctive mix initially devised by Jae5 from a childhood spent between London and Ghana. The album refines the energy of Common Sense into a smoother but no less ingenious form. The music is relaxed and mostly upbeat, even when J Hus is describing tense situations and states of mind.

He raps in a measured bass voice with singsong refrains. “I live a street life and I sing a melody,” he croons, but there is more going on than that. Rough chat is framed by allusions to sanctioned histories of violence (“They enslaved my ancestor, no remorse”) and romantic outlaw logic (“There’s no law, how can I be law-abiding?”). “I’m just a roadman so why am I preaching?” he asks in the final song, by when the answer is clear. Big Conspiracy marks a step forward in his development as a performer, beyond the two-dimensional limits of roadman street-lore.

★★★★☆

Big Conspiracy’ is released by Black Butter Records

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