Einstein is said to have described creativity as “intelligence having fun”. This is a quote that really carries some weight once you’re acclimated with artists such as Hertfordshire’s Esskay. The UK’s underground scene, and Grime in particular, has always been a beacon of creativity – shining through in various different forms – Esskay’s latest project Essence is a true testament to that fact.
Having begun his musical journey at age 15, the Shellyvnne talisman has spent many years honing his craft in order to reach this point. From Charlie Sloth’s 1Xtra premiere of his track Happy Face in 2011, all the way to his instalment of Sir Spyro’s acclaimed Sounds Of The Verse series in 2018, Esskay has always caught the attention of the scenes gatekeepers. True talent is undeniable; it only takes a quick 16 for a listener to realise that Esskay stands out from the norm. Whilst he admits his musical style is derived from Grime, it’s not difficult to see that there are a number of other influences at play. Along with TruOmega, his long standing producer, Esskay has managed to curate a project which weaves in and out of numerous sounds and styles; brought together to form a cohesive body of work in Essence.
The project begins with a rendition of the Lord’s Prayer in the intro of the opening track, Essenstein. The beat then drops as Esskay enacts his trademarked poetic style, exemplified in the very first line: “manufactured from many dismembered body parts / if I told you I’m searching for companionship you’d probably laugh”. He executes a rally of flows throughout the first verse, picking up and controlling the pace of the hard-knocking instrumental before it crescendos at the first chorus, drawing emotion through the clever use of smooth samples and screeching synths. As the song continues we bear witness to more of his laudable lyricism, “I’ve slain the local whore / rip the erroneous quotations from my vocal chords” being a stand out line for me. The third and final verse further details Esskay’s wrestle with introspection, as he succinctly explains “I wash my sins inside a sea of danger / plunge beneath these repercussions I’ll be reaping later / seething ‘til I meet my maker”.
Selfish offers no respite in the form of an intro. Within the first twenty seconds of the track we’re already exposed to a salvo of labyrinthine lyrics, sitting atop a slower – more atmospheric – yet similarly punchy beat. Amongst the visceral first verse there’s a clear focus on material wealth and the constant desire to acquire, deftly described in the line “money stuffed to the summit / rummaging rubbish / we suffer thoroughly / until we plummet” whilst also highlighted in the chorus’ line “..in a land where the man with the most toys wins”. As suggested in the title, this track further emphasises Esskay’s battleground of inner thought, nullifying the notion that he’s the ‘selfish’ one, as the chorus delineates: “if I don’t know who my own self is / how can I be accused of being so selfish”. The theme of magnifying materialism is wheeled along wittily throughout the second verse, with “turn mercenaries searching for merchandise” a salient bar. Through the use of various vocal fx and expert engineering, Esskay and TruOmega have managed to keep the energy high whilst simultaneously sustaining a sombre sound throughout the song; not a simple result to achieve.
The solemn style is uncompromising as we head into the project’s third track, Miss Demeanor, featuring the soulful vocals of Courtney Bennett. The first verse exhibits a multi-syllabic, metaphor-driven masterclass; again comprising of clever vocal fx perhaps best demonstrated in the line “your interference makes my signal weaker” which is chopped up and edited to give the impression of a faulty phone connection. TruOmega’s piano-lead production provides the perfect parity to Esskay’s emotive, well-structured verses as the MC delves deeper into his self-observation – this instance involving his perspective on relationships. Courtney Bennett’s vocals are blended nicely into the beat itself, serving as a juxtaposition between man and woman, herself and Esskay.
Unlike the previous tracks on the project, the follow up to Miss Demeanor – named Mr Predator – incites a lengthy introduction. A pitched down vocal repeatedly asks “why do you want to chase me”, which alludes to the title of the track, and Esskay eventually comes in after a short-but-sweet piano riff beside head-bopping percussion. The allegorical first verse includes a (personal favourite) bar: “prowling around these city blocks / want my organs sprawled across the walls / to demonstrate your teachings of an evening / like religious scriptures at a synagogue” which only serves as further evidence of Esskay’s inflamed imagination.
After the conclusion of verse one, we are treated to a diversification of the artists’ vocal talents, singing the chorus himself. Whilst it’s in-key, and demonstrates a certain understanding of chord progression, I wasn’t ready for it on my first listen. It was only when I found myself reciting it later on (and then revisited) that I could appreciate it for what it is, and it’s gone on to become one of my favourites from the project. Rappers are increasingly attempting to incorporate their own singing into songs, and I begun to think this was another example of a gimmick, however having lived with the project (ergo the song) for a little while now, I have come to recognize the achievement in the result. It only cements the suspicion that Esskay is a varied musician, stepping outside the common expectations of a rapper.
After the softness of Mr Predator, we are then lead into an energy-driven, raffish fifth song. The track listing lets us know that this is the first of a two-song fusion, officially being named Cult / Underworld. The first act of the fusion, Cult, details Esskay’s take on the veneration and worship displayed within modern day humanity. It explores the indoctrination of today’s society, best explained in the bar “travel, pursue, this calamitous route” and the hooks’ repeated lyric, purposely performed in a demonic tone: “all these children will be joining my cult / a joy to behold / now we’re poised to revolt”. Esskay really lets loose on the second verse, with each bar intertwining, fixed within the pockets of TruOmega’s choral instrumental. This is truly one for the fans of Esskay’s famed style, exhibiting flawlessly executed rhyme schemes as the continued infernal vocal FX bring us to the end of Cult.
A seamless transition, slight switch up in choral sample, and progression of percussion, bring in a change of hook to introduce the second act of the two-track fusion. You would be forgiven for missing the transition entirely; only really becoming evident when the second hook begins to take shape. A continuation of the darkened motif, Underworld is only illuminated by the thought-provoking tropes riddled throughout, Esskay explaining the Underworld as “thankless and it’s glum / anxious I’ve become / forever banging on this drum”. The song itself is thematically satisfying, underlining a concise follow up from the tentatively cynical Cult; Esskay and TruOmega have to be credited for integrating these two songs in such a cohesive fashion. The themes of both tracks run parallel to each other, serving to further highlight the thought, execution, and attention to detail that both of the musicians have paraded on the project.
Once you’re accustomed to the formula of fusion, Esskay then delivers another two-track combination, entitled Live Another Hour / Galaxy 23. An atmospheric build up begins with an eerily distorted vocal FX before a sharp synth pans from left to right, building a suspenseful mood culminating in the first drop. As the beat comes in alongside Esskay’s address, you can notice the rhythm of the percussion mimicking a heartbeat; yet another indication of the meticulous nature in which each song has been curated, the two artists focusing on the subtle as well as the apparent. The opening monologue is a requisite reminder of the whirlwind of wordplay Esskay holds in his chamber, letting off round after round with lines like “longevity is complex / stimulation seeming enough to defy the onset / of breakdown and conquest”. The first song Live Another Hour then progresses through the hook into a follow up of the established theme, with Esskay revisiting the phrase “the devil is a liar” from the previous song. As the hook plays out, eventually being reduced to a loop of the title phrase, it then overlaps into the introduction of the second act, Galaxy 23.
Having previously seen the video after its’ release on the week of the project, I was already familiar with this one. The ambient build up of the intro creates a relaxing mood before it apexes at the drop; an explosion of celestial sounds and space age FX. Faster paced than we’ve been used to in Essence, Esskay hits each pocket with precision as his voice is again manipulated, all coming together to form an assiduous first verse. Whereas previously the project has portrayed some pessimistic traits, Galaxy 23 is a lot more uplifting in both the instrumental and subject matter, maybe alluding to a conclusion of the journey through the project: taking all of the previous hardships on board to reach the true Essence. This is reflected in hook, as Esskay explains the “immaculate therapy / and the lack of supremacy / within Galaxy 23”. The following breakdown in the song then allows for another energy-inducing drop, as the craftsman continues his onslaught in a now triumphant tone, leading us into an alliterative coda – very impressive for those who are properly tuned in.
Esskay then ventures back to his varied vocal endeavors as he invites the audience into Galaxy 23 to “set you free”, as the song fades out you begin to get a sense of release from the build up of emotion. This is confirmed by the powerful vocal talent of Luca Chesney, who starts of the final song with the chorus to I’m Ready. Yet again, the message is evident within both the vocal content and the musical composition, reconfirming the triumphant tone. As the beat drops, with minimal percussion and just a spaced out synth in accompaniment, Esskay comes in with quick, sharp multi’s which are used to great effect right up until the switch up in the instrumental, the electric guitar brings to life an underlying hint of Rock felt throughout the project. With all taken into consideration, I consider the verses on this song to be the best on the project: a perfect portrayal of his skill set and expertise as well as his eclecticism. The track comes together nicely, blending emotion and meaning. The guitar progresses into a cool riff beneath Luca Chesney’s compelling vocals, whilst Esskay destroys the beat with punchy one liners still fitting within his complex rhyme patterns. There are too many quotables in this last track for me to pick just one, however something that stuck with me when listening was the line, “I’m defective as Essenstein”. This could be representative of a realization, reached at the end of the journey, now allowing Esskay to progress in the best way possible.
At the completion of the project I’m forced to believe that, even if you don’t fully appreciate the subject matter or musical composition, you really have to respect the conscientious effort and the scrupulous attention to detail in which Essence was put together. The project is a sanctuary of imagination, Esskay and TruOmega were relentless in provoking both thought and emotion from start to finish. The monotone, raspy intonation of the MC was broken up in unorthodox ways through the use of a multitude of vocal fx as well as vocal diversification. I can understand why Esskay’s intricate style might not be for everyone, particularly the untrained ear, however he’s steadily forming a bond between himself and the listeners who recognize the talent. Essence is a project filled with comprehensive themes and analysis thereof, a wide range of styles and sounds, blending and mixing genres: all thanks to the work of Esskay, TruOmega, the engineer(s), and of course the aptly used features, Courtney Bennett and Luca Chesney. Whilst the MC continues on his unique path through the industry, I have no doubt that this project will stand the test of time, attracting fans for years to come.