Since the release of his 2017 mixtape High Street Kid, the style of UK rap that 24-year-old artist MoStack occupies – along with peers like J Hus, Lotto Boyzz and Not3s – has become more tightly defined. Referred to most commonly as afroswing, the sound is a radio and dancefloor-friendly blend of dancehall, afrobeats, and rap. Tunes are typified by bouncy kicks, thick basslines and summer-friendly melodies, whilst lyrics focused primarily on flirting and flexing.
J Hus’ The 15th Day mixtape, released in 2015, proved a watershed moment for what would eventually become known as afroswing. It was followed by a flurry of creative activity from the artists leading this exciting new scene; and MoStack was one of its playful pioneers. Each new single pushed at the edges of the sound, teasing its bounds in an unfettered pursuit of the new. The aforementioned High Street Kid remains a high point from this fertile period, standing alongside both The 15th Day and Hus’ more polished debut album Common Sense as a defining record of the scene.
But as the genre began to gain an audience outside of the handful of London postcodes it first ruminated in, a huge wave of new artists conformed to a slick version of the sound. Afrowswing’s core tenets of xylophonic riffs and seductive choruses are now an inescapable norm on UK radio and at festivals. It’s within this narrowed vision that Stacko, MoStack’s highly-anticipated debut album, lies.
Taken on their individual merits, there are plenty of decent tracks here. Shannon, complete with a close-out guitar solo, is a sweet boy tune for the summer; Yes Yes shows MoStack at his angsty best; Wild is Cam’Ron’s Hey Ma in a new suit. The A-list collaborations with Dave, J Hus, Stormzy and Fredo all shine as expected, but simultaneously beg the question of why they need to be housed in an album when today’s playlist-first listeners would settle for them as standalone singles.
There are signs that the ideas pool is running dry too. The similarity between the guitar lead for Respect & Love and the vocal hook for MoStack’s 2018’s single What I Wanna is obvious to the point that it must be deliberate (both tracks are produced by iLL BLU) but the reasoning behind this is unclear. Take Em Down seems designed for the live setting – instructing mosh pits, like Mist’s 2018 track Mosh Pit, which MoStack featured on – but the beat doesn’t pack enough punch. And I Want You is the kind of throwaway attempt at securing a beach club hit that gets cooked up in major label meeting rooms on a daily basis – a shame too, given MoStack’s effortless flow in the verses.
Compared with the fresh, audible energy and expansive approach of High Street Kid – nominally a mixtape as opposed to an album, though the difference between the two formats is increasingly hard to delineate – Stacko feels like a step back, or at least a step sideways. It’s a collection of tracks which blurs together due to its lack of variation in sound and subject matter. The UK has had afroswing as its preferred summer soundtrack for four years now. While the industry is still rewarding artists commercially for sticking to the script, it would be welcome if MoStack – or any other acts in the scene – went back to breaking the rules for their next move.