Anxious about UK Grime

A previous Everyday Analysis article attempted (perhaps unconvincingly) to recover a radical element – of the voice as trill, or ‘too real’ – in a modern strain of rap music which contains deep-rooted misogyny and advocation of violence. That article however, did point out that in rap the voice can be thought of neither as an object of beauty (‘what a beautiful voice’) nor as the conveyor of meaning (‘what a meaningful lyric’); we may not agree with what is being rapped, and we may not find the rapper’s voice beautiful to listen to, so what is this enjoyment of the voice about?

The appeal of a repellent voice connects rap to genres like metal; both walk the line between fear and desire, a connection psychoanalysis has been interested in for years. In Freud, whilst fear can be thought of as directed at a particular object, anxiety is more unplaced and undirected. One moves from anxiety to fear. ‘An internal, instinctual danger’ (that of unplaced anxiety) is replaced by an ‘external, perceptual one’ (that of fear directed at a particular object) (SE 20: 126). Fear deals with anxiety. For Lacan, desire is also a way in which we deal with anxiety; the subject chooses particular objects of desire, in order to imagine that their unplaced anxiety will be solved by the acquisition of their particular object of desire.

Bringing anxiety into the discussion is the key to explaining the link between fear and desire in rap music. Desire for and fear of are both directed processes with an ‘object,’ whereas anxiety does not have an object, it is unplaced and undirected. We deal with anxiety by producing something to fear and something to desire, so that our anxiety seems like something we can potentially get away from, by avoiding what we fear, and seeking what we desire.


In metal we get a slippage, a moment where the two accidentally happen at once, what we fear and what we desire in the voice are the same. In certain other forms of music though, this relationship to anxiety seems less accidental and more unconscious.


UK Grime is a genre characterized by anxiety. Dan Hancox’s recent book on Grime reminds us how the popularization and Americanization of Grime has slowed it down. In traditional Grime ‘spitting’ is twice as fast as US-Style rap. An MC has 16 bars to rap (or 21 seconds, as SSC put it), before passing the mic. And the need-for-speed on the mic is related to the feeling of insufficient space in the Grime scene in general. The point is made by JME; the Grime scene is defined by being overcrowded; ‘You’ll get no air time like Spaced / Frankly there’s not enough space / There’s already too many stars like space’ (96 Bars of Revenge). As an MC, there is no space for you, you’re up against it, up against every other MC on the circuit; there are quite simply ‘too many man.’ The object of fear is the other MCs, and so is the object of desire. One has to target the success of those above them, ‘I spread Grime like disease[/]I will not stop till my name rings bells like Dizzee’s’ and continually put down those below you or on the same level as you; ‘you will never be like JME’ (JME). The atmosphere is one which repeats the desperate search for an object for your anxiety. What it shows us is not that we must avoid what we fear and seek what we desire, but that as long as we have an ‘object’ to fear and desire, we can hold anxiety at bay.


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