• Dan Knight

Who Should Win the 2019 Mercury Prize? Our Picks

Last year, London rock band Wolf Alice were awarded the coveted Mercury Prize for their fantastic sophomore album Visions of a Life - but who will take home the prize this year?

On the 19th September 2019, the winner of the annual Mercury Prize will be announced at a ceremony hosted at London's Eventim Apollo. The shortlist is one of the most diverse in recent memory, with strong entries from multiple genres represented. As the date draws near, a group of our writers have made their own picks from the nominees on the shortlist.

Danni Dawson, UK:

Little Simz is my pick for the Mercury Prize this year because of her unapologetic lyrics that weave tales of angsty youth with a tender introspection that you don't usually glimpse from artists. 

She mixes grime with jazzy walking basslines, lilting piano trills and the occasional reggae offbeat to create a grungy lyrical album set against poverty-stricken areas of London in GREY Area. Performing at a young age Little Simz got the guts to take her rapping further, but it’s taken a few years to find a sound that allows the freedom to explore her deeply personal lyrics.  Little Simz expertly blends unwavering confidence with authentic vulnerability in songs such as “Therapy”: "Afraid of the dark. Afraid of the past. Afraid of the answers to questions I never ask".

With scorching lyrics like these: "They would never want to admit that I’m the best here from the mere fact that I’ve got ovaries" in “Venom” she captures the feminist feel of the '90s punk bands. Her rational outbursts could inspire many young women to take a stand.

Not one to shy away from her principles, Little Simz makes clear that her younger years have shaped how she’s moved forward: "Real tears in my eyes when Ken got nicked. Tore everyone apart but the law don’t give two shits. Just another black boy in the system" on the track “101 FM”.

A monster of an album, GREY Area boasts genre-spanning tracks with carefully considered lyrics about the realities of growing up a black female rapper in London and Little Simz thoroughly deserves a win in this year's Mercury Prize line-up. 

Listen to Little Simz: GREY Area on Spotify here.

Lucy Weltner, US:

In the video for “North Nights,” British rapper Slowthai reenacts the most famous scene from The Shining. A piece of wood with a splintered hole appears onscreen, and Slowthai plays Jack, popping out with an irrepressible, manic grin. Why reenact a scene that’s been referenced and riffed on millions of times? Why include a Shining reference in a music video for a punk-grime banger? Slowthai’s crazy, Trickster-God smile makes the reason obvious: because it’s fun. Duh.

Slowthai's songs bleed creativity, spraying weird metaphors, twisted visual jokes, slurred Britishisms and unrehearsed defiance. Some critics accuse today’s rappers of being incapable staying on topic; Slowthai makes staying off topic an art. Slowthai’s personality – constantly creative, irrepressibly honest – coheres a bunch of frenetic weirdness into a unique aesthetic. Listening to Nothing Great About Britain is like walking inside a world powered entirely by one weird kid.

Along with the weirdness, there’s a rebellious kindness, an anti-authoritarianism that focuses less on screwing over the powerful than helping the people who the system won’t. He raps with obvious tenderness about his delinquent, drug-dealing high school friends and the problems his young mom dealt with while raising him.

In between hard-edged grime tracks, Slowthai slips in anecdotes about growing up working class in Northampton (in my favorite, his dad takes him to a soccer game he didn’t actually buy tickets for). Slowthai talks casually but carefully, airing out memories that have stayed vivid for years. He never tells the audience how to feel about these snippets of stories, but you can feel a mix of nostalgia, sadness and anger burning up underneath, turning the class-warfare rhetoric personal.

Nothing Great About Britain isn't a perfect album – it's less of a coherent sonic statement than, say, the 1975's new record – but it has more personality than anything else up for the Mercury. And that’s why it should win.

Listen to Slowthai: Nothing Great About Britain on Spotify here.

Danny Kilmartin, Ireland:

With such stiff competition, even trying to look at the shortlist in cultural context doesn’t do much

to narrow it down. However, Nothing Great About Britain just about clinches it for me.

Slowthai provides a crucial and often ignored perspective on modern life. He’s a 24 year old, mixed-race male who grew up in a mostly white council estate known as “The Bush”, and his album takes on the problems faced by British youth with raw energy and spirit. Musically, he combines grime with drum ‘n’ bass and punk rock and lyrically, he is brutally honest, fierce and focused.

The tracks on Nothing Great About Britain are straight to the point; reflecting the state of Great Britain under Brexit, providing a voice to the working class, drug addicts, those who grew up in broken homes and shining a light on wealth disparity. On the title track, he mocks The Queen and references Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in Da Corner (another Mercury winner) over a queasy, off-kilter beat. His lyrics are as amusing as they are angry, but also vulnerable on tracks like “Peace of Mind” and “Northampton’s Child”, which pay respect to the single mother that raised him.

Skepta collaboration “Inglorious” is as harsh as grime gets, and Slowthai sounds urgent on “Grow Up” and “Missing”. Sonically, the album jumps from electro-punk (“Doorman” with Mura Masa), dazzling trip-hop (“Gorgeous”) and old school garage (“Toaster”) all showcasing Slowthai’s versatility as an MC. it’s a fresh take on an established style and one that puts Thai at the forefront of the UK urban scene.

Listen to Slowthai: Nothing Great About Britain on Spotify here.

Rosie Solomon, UK:

With song titles including “I’m Scum” and the advisory “Never Fight a Man With A Perm”, the latest IDLES offering Joy as an Act of Resistance is full of those wait, what? moments. No one deserves the Mercury Prize more than this ragtag group of lovable lads from Bristol whose album tackles issues such as toxic masculinity, self love, immigration and Brexit strife, and vulnerability - it is, in lead singer Joe Talbot’s words, “a brave naked smile in this shitty new world”.

IDLES are the band we need right now. The aforementioned issues are explored through Joe’s signature growl and expelled through the band’s mix of pounding drum beats and gritty guitar tones in an act of total catharsis for anyone who is sick of the way the world works at the moment but still wants to mosh their way into the apocalypse anyway.These guys deserve the award and we deserve this band. My money’s on them.

Listen to IDLES: Joy as an Act of Resistance on Spotify here.

Dan Knight, UK:

I’d love to see this year’s prize go to Fontaines D.C. for their debut album Dogrel. This was a really hard choice as there was a lot of great stuff to choose from this year – my personal runner-up, IDLES’ incredible Joy as an Act of Resistance, was beaten by a margin only measurable in subatomic particles!

Both bands are among my favourite new rock acts of the last several years, but something about Fontaines’ shambolic yet confident and direct musical persona is reminiscent of bands like The Clash while remaining distinct and unique. Dogrel’s songs vary between youthful pub-rock singalongs (“Liberty Belle”, “Boys in the Better Land”) and moody, intelligent post-punk (“Hurricane Laughter”, “The Lotts”), although most sit right in the sweet spot between the two.

The beautiful, straightforward simplicity of traditional Irish folk closer “Dublin City Sky” is a stroke of genius too – a timeless connection to the band’s Dublin roots and a perfect way to round off this stellar collection. I can’t wait to see what they do next!

Listen to Fontaines D.C.: Dogrel on Spotify here.

Who do you think should win the Mercury Prize? Leave a comment below.

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