The 2017 Mercury Prize nominations for grime and UK hip-hop, after years of low representation, could seem like big raffle wins given that the 12 shortlisted albums this year were picked from a pool of 220 records.
Four black artists made the final list, which was announced last week. They include albums by J Hus, Stormzy, Loyle Carner and Sampha, as well as from Ed Sheeran, Blossoms, The xx, Alt-J, The Big Moon, Kate Tempest, Dinosaur and Glass Animals.
Grime artists pride themselves on being independent, or approach building their brands as such, placing less value in record label deals which, due to neglect and ignorance, could be blamed for the genre’s slump until recent years.
Along with a surge in sales, a Mercury Award nomination (or any nomination) brings some level of respectability, a new phase in the development of grime as a genre which, until recent years, was in the doldrums.
Sales and streaming of grime albums between May 2016—April 2017 have nearly doubled from 0.9 % to 1.6 % of the total market of British music, ranking grime just below classical music at 1.9 % but above folk and reggae in a report compiled by the British Phonographic Industry, organisers of the award.
Last year, albums by Kano, Skepta, Bugsy Malone and Krept & Konan secured top ten positions on the charts, continued this year by Wiley’s Godfather and Stormzy's Gang Signs & Prayer, which became the first grime album to reach number one on the charts.
The panel of judges, for last year, were bold and forward-looking for awarding Skepta's Konnichiwa the prize instead of, say, Blackstar by David Bowie which would have made for a fitting tribute not many would have questioned.
The Mercury Prize’s stated aim is to reward artistic achievement and not album sales, and has a reputation for awarding little known artists over popular ones, a sort of Brit awards for “true musicianship.”
Yet the near doubling of sales and streaming of products designated as grime has coincided with an increase in the number of representation on this year’s shortlist, from grime (Stormzy), as well as hip-hop (Loyle Carner) and the place where both meet (J Hus).
Sampha, as pianist and balladeer, is not too dissimilar from many of the previously shortlisted artists, and could have made the list in this or any other year for his debut Process.
The surge in sales and streaming may be a result of the genre’s creative vitality and unlikely a direct cause of the judge’s decision. If only each judge's criteria were made public.
Mercury Prize 2017 Nominations
The Big Moon: Love in the 4th Dimension
Loyle Carner: Yesterday’s Gone
Dinosaur: Together, As One
Glass Animals: How to Be a Human Being
J Hus: Common Sense
Ed Sheeran: ÷
Stormzy: Gang Signs & Prayer
Kate Tempest: Let Them Eat Chaos
The xx: I See You