Album Review: 23 – Central Cee

On his new mixtape, Central Cees successful formula continues to work. ‘23‘ evolves in the lyricism, subject, flow and production of his latest project, ‘Wild West’.

In just over 18 months, central cee became the golden boy of British rap. Fusing melodic drill beats with a chill, punchy flow, the West London rapper has been voted GRM’s Male Artist of the Year 2021. Its reach and role in cultural change is also evident in its three UK nominations and a fifth place finish in BBC Radio 1’s Sound of 2022.

While Central Cee isn’t the only rapper creating unique sound and content in drill, my anticipation for ’23’ was rooted in Central’s fusion. On the No Jumper podcast, the rapper broke it down, “the melody must always be different. I hate this dark beat…I needed to change it.” (The Central Cee interview).

Sampling jazzy riffs, catchy flute melodies and soulful choral vocals rather than the typical eerie piano sparked demand for Central’s music. None of the eerie melodies and murky 808 slides typically heard on boring classics by Carnshill, Ghosty and M1ONTHEBEAT can be heard on Central’s own music.

Weaving a message of humility, Central is indicative of rap’s abandonment of the narrative of pride and rivalry. First released in trap-wave style in 2017, but exploding onto the scene with the matured and now-classic “Day in the Life” in 2020, it defends its slow journey to the top rather than an overnight hit at the the following day.

Central Cee’s magnetism owes much to its relativity. While the hits of Russ Millions and Tion Wayne also deviate from the original sound of 67 and the Harlem Spartans, Central takes this into uncharted territory. “When I go to some of these meetings…they tell me “what kind of trajectory do you want to go…a shot from another artist”…I could never answer that question” (The Central Cee interview).

On the new mixtape, Central Cee’s successful formula continues to work. ‘23‘ evolves in the production, subject and flow of his latest project, ‘Wild West’. In some ways ‘23‘ is pretty typical: topics ranging from rap politics, street commentary, romantic endeavors, snarky dissent, and a few personal musings. Central Cee’s spin includes complete transparency in his stardom and honesty in his background in dealing drugs. There are signs of artistic maturation throughout the project, with intimate writing accompanying increasingly sumptuous instrumentals.

‘Khabib’ kicks off the mixtape spectacularly with layered fiddles and a relentless flow, catching you off guard like the UFC giant would. The track is commanding and meticulous yet effortless. Central’s flow picks up, culminating in a killer second verse. The impressive detail in the delivery of each line validates the comparison in the title. Khabib is infamous for his measured but ruthless destruction of opponents, Central’s flow and bars epitomize that analogy. It’s a clever reference.

Central levels his ego over a serene panpipes and vocal sample on “Straight Back to It.” This is the first of nine production credits for Young Chencs who, alongside Chris Rich, recognize the best production elements on the mixtape. Central’s signature flow blends well with the beat, and a sample of Young Adz lending his thoughts to the cruelty of the rap game makes for a satisfying track. This is fitting given Young Adz’s emergence as a young talent at just 15 and his meteoric rise to fame. Sounds familiar.

‘Cold Shoulder’ is a great old-school tune. Lines such as “Remember the floor was peeling, there was moisture all over the ceiling, we trap for a positive reason, all because the rap brought no P” followed by “De Bush in beverly hills i watch ‘at bro as “look at the shit we built” are a continuation of central’s efforts to air street life in an uplifting way. Poeticizing his socioeconomic elevation over a stripped-down, smooth beat echoes elements of ’90s American hip-hop.

Honorable mention to one of my favorite bars on the mixtape, “They made a change and forgot their roots, I made a change and picked up the young Gs, took them shopping and I I cut off their shoes”.

Central Cee diverts the attention of his new audience, amassed by hits such as “Obsessed With You”, to serious matters. On “Lil Bro” Central and his real-life younger brother back and forth to a blazing string beat, brilliantly illustrating the cross-generational tension between street life before and after. One shares wisdom and the other exposes hypocrisy. Central’s delivery is raw and heartfelt. Their brotherly chemistry on a call and response structure creates an immersive experience. Key shifts in beat cue exasperation and synths are introduced as Central’s tone picks up, fulfilling its role as big brother. “What do you want to be when you’re older?” Cee, I want to be a drug dealer” & “I have my brothers And when it peaks, they support my beef…The same man who will support your beef. The same ones that send statements!” Sudden, tender piano syncs with bars about the boy’s parents, or lack of. These artistic touches, often rare in drill and trap music, help embody Central in as a wiser and attentive brother.

Almost all musical merits on ‘23‘ from producer Young Chencs. From the Pink Floyd-esque outro on ‘Airbnb’ to the horn sample on ‘Terminal 5’,”You are now listening to Young Chencscredits her glamorous production throughout. Its high-pitched trumpet and rhythmic beeps on “Retail Therapy” are a deft sample of Hank Crawford’s “Wildflower.” Also sampled by artists like Kanye and 2Pac, it adds flair to the mixtape.

Adventurous production facilitates Central’s highest quality rapping throughout ‘23‘ and ‘End of the Beginning’ prove it. The beautiful piano immediately hinted at the inspiration or influence of Dave’s production, the latter being the case. Central admits,Still produced by Dave…he’s responsible for pretty much the entire song (Central Cee interview with Alhan and friends).

Dave’s piano chases Central; a somber key change turns a forlorn tone and reminiscent bars into pure bluster. A pristine but seething ad then completes a screw-face inducing beat switch. Chris Rich and Young Chencs collaborate on production to deliver my favorite song from the mixtape.

It would be criminal to ignore ‘Eurovision’, a song attracting rappers from Italy, Spain and France to a star-studded banger drill. If it is a competition, Italy emerges victorious. Rondodasosa’s explosive delivery nicely juxtaposes Baby Gang’s bouncy flow. Whether it’s an artistic or business decision, the song works, with Central stating in July 2021, “it’s suttin’ I really wanna do. Bringing Europe together(The Central Cee interview).

I am writing this article in Spain. When talking to other students from all over Europe, Central Cee is often the only British rapper people have heard of. At parties, students from Belgium, France and Italy ask for Central Cee. Either way, the West London entertainer is undeniably business savvy,”I like the marketing side of things, more than the music sometimes(The Central Cee interview).

A handful of songs on ‘23‘ could use some extra musicality. Central begins several songs with the same echoing intro and previews the drill-like drums in an identical format. ‘Bunda’, ‘Air Bnb’ and ‘Terminal 5’ contain a singular verse and chorus, revealing them as quite basic.

All in all an exciting release for UK rap fans and I would say it lives up to expectations. The mantra changed to ‘23‘, fully aware of its possibility of empowering young listeners. Spitting out varied streams on glitzy instrumentals within the confines of the exercise, this has huge commercial potential. British rap is often held to an unfair standard but ‘23‘ is a good project with a good message. “Most of the time it’s just rap, but I gotta talk sometimes, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the trap, I can’t glorify it”.


Comments are closed.