Aitch: Close to Home — Music for mass consumption

Album review: Highly anticipated debut from Manchester rapper plays it safe

Close to Home
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Artist: Aitch
Genre: Rap
Label: EMI

Harrison James Armstrong, aka Aitch, is already a platinum-selling artist. His stage name chimes with songwriter Terence McGaughey’s vivid memory of gangs in Belfast demanding people recite the alphabet. If you pronounced h as “haitch” it meant you were a Catholic, while “aitch” supposedly signalled a Protestant. Aitch pronounces his name somewhere in between.

Most of grime’s leading lights to date have been from London town, but Aitch hails from Manchester. Thanks to the support and endorsement of Stormzy, his singles and extended plays have become mega smash hits and his press releases boast of billions of streams and millions of sales.

Unfortunately, this appears to have led to the obligatory Ed Sheeran collaboration, a syrupy affair that probably won’t be considered the high point of either party’s career.

While the roots of this music are gritty and urban, this slickly polished manifestation of pop-orientated British rap has positioned its creator as an ambassador for energy drinks, non-fungible tokens, and McDonald’s first rewards scheme, transforming the 22-year-old into a poster boy for late capitalism.

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The music is suitably dull, watery and unremarkable, occasionally coalescing into reasonably pleasant sun-kissed pop-rap. With typical Mancunian understatement, Aitch has made much out of the fact that Close to Home is “10,000 per cent a Manchester record”. Liam Gallagher was reportedly lined up for a guest appearance.

Apart from 1989, which samples Fools Gold by The Stone Roses, and a succession of skits in a Manc accent, there is precious little here to back up such a claim. Over a decade ago a rapper from Tottenham called Wretch 32 used the same sample to much greater effect on an album which bristled with post-millennial tension.

This album is not grime. It’s hardly surprising that Aitch claims that young people don’t listen to grime any more, a contention that didn’t go down too well in the wider scene. Aitch purveys a poppier, more accessible sound, steering it away from the darkness and innovation of trap and drill. It also puts down his marker as a new artist, while stalwarts such as Kano drift into middle-age despite making some of the best music of their careers.

While Aitch admittedly has a good flow, it doesn’t really go anywhere, or amount to anything substantial whatsoever beyond glittery urban pop. This is music for mass consumption and a slick soundtrack to consumerism. If he finds a greater sense of urgency, then perhaps he can become an artist of distinction.

Close to Home will be a very popular album, but just as Big Macs and Starbuck’s coffee sell like hot cakes, the wisdom of crowds isn’t always to be trusted.

Éamon Sweeney

Éamon Sweeney, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about music and culture