“It’s not just a nod. They’re not ticking a box.” Kane “Kano” Robinson is considering his album Made in the Manor’s nomination for next week’s Mercury Prize, alongside grime kingpin Skepta’s Konnichiwa as well as global heavyweights Radiohead and David Bowie. To put one London rap album on the 12-strong shortlist could have been an exercise in tokenism. Two in the same year means something bigger is happening.
“In terms of everyone, as a scene, it does feel like this is our biggest year,” Kano, 31, tells me. “There have been years when individuals have done extremely well, like Dizzee, but not so much everyone else. Now it feels like we have a few players.”
Since Kanye West appeared at the Brit Awards backed by an army of grime stars with flamethrowers last year, we’ve seen Stormzy cracking the singles top 10, Giggs sending his album Landlord to number two, Drake ceremonially signing to the grime label Boy Better Know, plus Skepta hitting number one with his album and booking a giant December show at Alexandra Palace. Meanwhile, in March Kano reached the top 10 for the first time with his fifth album, and his biggest London gig at Brixton Academy is coming next month. “Starting out, when I was on pirate radio, or even around 2005 when I was supporting Mike Skinner at Brixton Academy, I never really saw myself being able to play my own show there,” he says.
When the Mercury Prize has acknowledged homegrown rappers previously, they’ve been doing something fairly unorthodox out on their own – Speech Debelle, Ghostpoet, Young Fathers and Roots Manuva, for example. Kano features his fellow rappers Wiley, Giggs and Jme on Made in the Manor and has been on the scene for over a decade, also featuring in the past on tracks by Skepta, Lethal Bizzle and Ghetts. Last night he won Best Album at the second annual Rated Awards for grime music at the Roundhouse.
He’s very much part of the wider movement, but keen to point out that he’s his own man too. His management gets in touch before we meet to ask me not to describe him as a grime MC, and he says as much himself over a pot of tea in Soho House: “I feel like I can fit in but am also a bit different. Me and Skepta, we’re kind of from the same world but have totally different-sounding albums. That’s why I get funny sometimes when people say I’m a grime artist. Not in a negative way, but I don’t feel it’s a true representation of the music I’m making.”
While Skepta’s cold futurism can feel a bit relentless, Kano skates right across the musical spectrum. There’s pure grime aggression on the hammering 3 Wheel-ups but also sunny piano atmospherics on T-shirt Weather in the Manor, powerful brass and strings on the spectacular This is England, and a mellow cameo from Damon Albarn on Deep Blues. “I went to him not even thinking that we were gonna make a tune. I was just showing him things I’d been making, and he chose to be on that song.”
The Albarn connection has been a fruitful one. Kano appeared on the 2010 Gorillaz album, Plastic Beach, and toured the world with the band. “He’s opened my eyes to a lot, taken me to places that, I don’t wanna say I never would have gone, but I’d never been to them at that time. We went all over America, Europe, Australia. I went to Lebanon. I went to Syria! We played Madison Square Garden with Jay-Z standing at the side of the stage and me shitting myself.”
It also gives Kano a credible appeal to listeners who might not be so deeply immersed in the world of grime. But what’s really drawing people in this time around are his lyrics. He’s a man of many voices, spitting fire one minute, echoing the dancehall tones of his Jamaican roots the next, and relaxed and conversational on Little Sis. That’s a brave song, addressed to a half-sister who he hadn’t seen for so long that he’d actually forgotten she existed. When Kano was a teenager his estranged father introduced him to her as a two year-old, and he hadn’t seen her since. “You had your hair in twists, pretty little sunshine/Dropped you off just one time/Then we didn’t ever see you again, was it the Choc Ice?” he raps.
Now, thanks to the song, they’re back in touch. “She came to my last London show and we had a chat. It was a bit mad,” he says. “I am old enough now that I can’t blame anyone else. We’re all grown-ups, we should have a relationship and can do it without my dad. We haven’t seen each other much because I’ve been away so much, but it feels a lot better.”
Another song, Strangers, is addressed to one of his first rapping partners, Dean, who called himself Demon. Again, it’s helped to mend a broken relationship. “When the album came out, a couple of days later he texted me. Then we got on the phone, spoke for a couple of hours. We had a good chat. I’ve spoke to him loads since. Time passes and you think, what was that all about? Not much. Not enough for us to be best friends one minute, and then you’ve got two kids and I’ve never met them. Nothing’s that serious.”
It’s not that common for rappers to admit to flaws in song, to come over as vulnerable. Kano has never been more personal than on this album, naming old addresses in East Ham, where he grew up, mentioning family members and friends by name, and seeming to long for his pre-fame days. “The purest summers were those in the 90s/’05 changed my life forever, it’s bittersweet,” he says on T-shirt Weather in the Manor. Sure, he’s better off now, living in leafy Buckhurst Hill, but it’s “so quiet it’s boring”, and he’s certainly not as well off as some of his associates seem to think.
“There’s a lot of, ‘Do this for me,’ ‘Do this for me,’ ‘You’re not doing enough.’ Like I should be so fucking rich that YOU should have a Ferrari. You deal with a lot of that shit growing up. People get envious and there’s conflict.”
His lyrical openness and the melancholy of his nostalgia resulted from a combination of taking stock as he turned 30, and realising that five albums into his career, he needed to go further. “For me it was like, why should people listen to me again? I need to make the album that deserves attention and warrants that hour. Everyone’s busy. To listen to an album for an hour nowadays, especially for kids, I need to really be saying something. And for me to drop a fifth album, what am I gonna tell you that you don’t already know about me? I had to dig real deep. I’ve said shit I’ve never ever said before. It had to be that way.”
It was worth it. It really feels like he’s stepped up a level creatively, and has been rewarded with bigger sales, bigger audiences, and possibly next Thursday, a great big GBP20,000 Mercury cheque. “It feels good,” he says. “I’m glad to be here and for people to still want me to be here.” We’re all living in Kano’s manor now.
Made in the Manor is out now on Parlophone.
Hyundai Mercury Prize, Sept 15, Eventim Apollo, W6 (0844 249 1000, eventimapollo.com). Also live on BBC Four 9-10pm, BBC Red Button at 8-9pm and BBC Radio 6 Music.
Kano plays Oct 7, O2 Academy Brixton, SW9 (0844 477 2000, o2academybrixton.co.uk)