Ireland’s biggest rap star talks to Cian Montague about his momentous debut.
Irish hip-hop is having a moment. It has long led an underground existence in this country, but it is now seeing a surge in interest, as new talents emerge and older ones begin to get the recognition they deserve. The most prominent rapper to emerge from this island in recent years is 24-year-old Alex Anyaegbunam, better known as Rejjie Snow. Snow has been making waves since tracks of his appeared on YouTube when he was a teenager, but a debut album was slow to materialise. Several delays meant that fans have had to content themselves with a run of strong singles since 2015 and the promising mixtape, The Moon & You, released last May. Throughout this time, anticipation continued to build.
Finally, on February 16th, Dear Annie arrived. It’s a charismatic debut, where Snow showcases his confident, nimble rhymes. Thematically he hits a number of places: ever the romantic, he dwells on love and relationships, as well as parents, drugs, depression and insecurities, and includes a couple of fun outliers that lighten the mood. He both sings and raps on the project. It’s a worthy effort from Ireland’s flagship rapper.
When I talk to Snow, just a few days after Dear Annie has dropped, he’s in the middle of a gruelling day of back to back press interviews. On the phone he sounds tired, but pleased with himself. “I feel good,” he tells me, “It feels like a lot of weight off my back. It just felt like the right time to release it to the world.” Why had the release been delayed so much? “I didn’t feel the music I was making at the time. I had to tap into a headspace and really explore my identity… and the person I am. And I guess that happened just in the last couple months.” Clearly the process involved some revisions. “I scrapped a lot of stuff… [Dear Annie] is all from within the last year, really.”
Thematically, Snow describes his new project as “the stories of friends, and relationships and loss, and past experiences, all in one sort of world.” If it’s a world of its own, what would that be? “[It’s] trippy, kind of lovey, bipolar, really all over the place… with all these different emotions and feelings. I tried to really capture that sense of losing your mind… the messiness.” As for the musical influences on the project, he cites “pop music… and I guess a lot of classic hip-hop albums… Nas, Wu-Tang and Biggie”. Blaxploitation soundtracks and acid jazz were also important to his creation process, he says. Later, he mentions the significance of grime music too: “Living in south-east London, you’re around that a lot,” he says.
Clearly, there were some influences closer to home as well. I ask Snow about one unlikely inclusion on Dear Annie: the cover of Republic of Loose’s ‘The Steady Song’, that he performs with Anna of the North under the name ‘Charlie Brown’. “I was gonna just do a remix of that song, but then I sent it to Mick [Pyro, Republic of Loose’s frontman] and he loved it. And that was a blessing for me, because it’s one of my favourite songs, and one of my favourite bands. It was a little bit of a surprise for people.”
Dear Annie sees the return of some innovative creative partners. Cam O’bi, who produced Snow’s head-turning ‘All Around the World’ in 2015, and who has frequently worked with Chance the Rapper, has a hand in several tracks, including the sunny ‘Pink Lemonade’, Snow’s favourite on the record. “Cam’s really talented, a pleasure to work with for real”, he enthuses. Rising Canadian star, Kaytranada, with whom Snow has previously collaborated on ‘Blakkst Skn’, produced the groovy Aminé-featuring ‘Egyptian Luvr’. “We’ve never actually worked in the studio together, it’s just been over email,” says Snow. “We send each other music a lot.” He assures me that they will “definitely” be working together again. “He’s really cool… It’s a real friendship, like a real bromance,” he laughs.
Snow’s first studio album has led to a lot of positive press. Several publications have portrayed him as leading the charge for Irish hip-hop. The Guardian write: “You could call Dear Annie the first major Irish hip-hop album”, while RTÉ declare that with Dear Annie, “Rejjie Snow puts Ireland on the hip hop map”. Snow tells me that he doesn’t read the reviews, but is aware of the positive reaction the new music has been getting. I wonder does he feel the weight of all these expectations. “Nah, nah – ‘cause I never really grew up in the scene. When I first released music, I was already in America, in college.” He is keen to share the credit: “For me it’s fine because I feel like a lot of people have put Ireland on the map, not just me… Everyone is in it together, and I feel like it’s a really special time now… It’s exciting, and the creativity is really coming through.”
When I ask him if there are any homegrown artists he’d be eager to work with, he’s diplomatic. “Everybody,” he laughs, before adding, “I’d really like to work with Versatile, obviously.” Later on, when I ask for his pick for best rapper alive, he pauses for a moment, before confidently saying: “Lethal Dialect”. It’s striking that someone who has spent so much time in America and the UK still holds his hometown scene in such high regard.
Things are perhaps beginning to change, but it has long been the case in hip-hop that the artists with the greatest commercial potential are those with American (or Canadian) accents. With this in mind, the ‘Irishness’ of Snow’s music has come under scrutiny. While a particular Dublin cadence remains in his delivery, his voice is undeniably different to early releases like ‘Dia Dhuit’ and even the Rejovich EP. “I don’t really pay it attention,” Snow answers, “That’s just how it sounds when it comes out.” He points out that he has lived in the States for about four years. “When I make my songs I’m just that character… That shit sounds hopping and that’s all that matters.”
Perhaps his roots manifest more clearly in his subject matter than in his accent. Being from Dublin, rather than a big American city, possibly limits one’s choices for subject matter. “There’s so much you can talk about just from growing up in Dublin, and there’s ways you can do it and not come across too poorly,” says Snow. “A lot of it is just like glamour, just to sound good… In hip hop that’s what it is most times, just because it sounds cool, people say stuff, which is one thing, but if it’s not true that’s a whole other thing too.” So, is this why he chooses to write so much about love and romance? “Yeah, I mean, [Dublin’s] a romantic city, so that’s always there… There’s the poetry that came out of there, at least for me…It’s the fair city, you know what I mean?” He doesn’t get back to Dublin that often, he says, but he’s trying to change that. Ahead of his gig in the Olympia on 12 March, he says he’s “excited to see friends, family and just put on a good show.”
Rejjie Snow has all the makings of a future star. He’s young, hardworking, self-assured, and capable of performing across a diverse sonic palette. Dear Annie’s closer is a majestic ode to Snow’s mother, called ‘Greatness’ and the title doesn’t seem far-fetched. I want to ask Snow about a simple but telling lyric on ‘Charlie Brown’: “I get the gold Grammy” is that how far his ambition stretches? “Yeah, for sure. That’s the only accolade. That’s the one. I hope it happens.” Of course, no Irish act has ever won a Grammy in the rap category. With Dear Annie, though, Rejjie Snow is off to a good start.
Rejjie Snow plays the Olympia Theatre on 12 March. Dear Annie is out now.