The latest project the rising UK rapper is unsettling but addictive, enormous in scope, and plays front to back like the ultimate hybrid mixtape.
In its daring eclecticism, fusing delicate inner-thought with materialistic swagger, the music of Octavian achieves a galactic variety of scale. After dropping out of London’s prestigious BRIT School, attended by the likes of King Krule and Amy Winehouse, living between France and England, and becoming homeless as a teenager, the young rapper’s new project, SPACEMAN, is an attempt to write, co-produce, and curate his way down to our planet from somewhere alien and fascinating. Its careful manipulation of genres and provocative lyricism—threats to steal your partner or to “shoot you in your face” as he says in the flawless “Revenge”—are laid out alongside spoken-word philosophy about loyalty and self-fulfillment. We are given the feeling of an epic journey while being invited to decipher the troubled psyche of hedonistic talent. The result is unsettling but addictive, and can’t be too far from the ultimate hybrid mixtape.
From one angle, SPACEMAN can be taken as an intoxicated tour of South-East London (hence the name of his creative crew “Essie Gang” : “S-E”). The area of Camberwell, where Octavian grew up, is where arty students, young professionals, and hipsters converge with the poverty of long-standing social housing estates and the spill out from one of the city’s major trauma hospitals. A slew of fatal stabbings took place there this summer, sending shockwaves across the atmosphere of local life. “I told my guy put the suttin’ down/Everyday man get bad karma/Still runnin’ round,” Octavian blurts on the blue-sky reflection “This Is My World.” In instructing his friend to put a weapon down, he confronts the dilemma faced by an increasing number of boys and young men who feel the need to arm themselves in high-risk parts of Britain’s major cities. This sensitivity to what people ought to do and say ebbs and flows on unexpected ethical shores throughout this body of work.
But while Octavian dabbles in introversion and aggression, he does so by making himself refreshingly available with his emotions. He is confused about the contradictions of his unstable past, being seen as “the evil kid” despite his older brother being the drug-dealer. He references his mother on multiple occasions: “Guess what, Mummy, I said, guess what?” are his first words on the mixtape, rooting the whole project close to home, and heart, in a way that is rarely heard in a UK rap scene saturated with bravado and closed-book masculinity.
Then he zooms out, into the stratosphere, and beyond. Because Octavian wants you to get a good view of him living that life. He’s a “rockstar”; he doesn’t meet his label, he just gets his check in writing; he drops £500 on sunglasses, but is so waved he can’t even see. The flex raps are backed up with the real celebrity status he’s experienced recently, having been invited to perform at the forthcoming launch of Tokyo’s flagship Stone Island store, modeling for Louis Vuitton, and tapping de rigueur art and fashion mogul Virgil Abloh to design SPACEMAN’s cover. It endows the music with a galactic cool, his versatile, cigarette-scorched voice slurring and singing over a spectrum of pop melodies, house synths, and crisp trap beats.
At times, like in the ethereal “Stand Down,” the production can sound uncannily similar to producer Noah “40” Shebib’s catalog. Does this dilute Octavian’s polite dismissal of Drake’s cosign earlier this year? It doesn’t really matter, because the style is just as effective while employed by the Londoner. In this cold, neon-trap lane, Octavian brings up producers like teenage soundscaper Elevated, who produces eight glistening tracks here to cement his name. The trap aesthetic packages SPACEMAN’s otherwise challenging, experimental character in more accessible wrapping. It’s there for frowning British teenagers, excitable European music nerds, and the North American masses, alike.
Octavian is willing to stretch himself further afield than most artists do in their entire careers; to be undefinable in so many directions, without looking slightly phased or unnatural. He knows that everyone is watching him. This intense self-consciousness provides the binding glue to SPACEMAN. It isn’t often that we as listeners are required to work so hard to keep up, and straddle an artist’s multitudinous lanes all at once. Whether it’s tapping our feet on the wet curb to gritty, unstable British realism, or gazing from a height over the glossy cross-pollination of world music, making sense of this outrageously talented pioneer is a challenging but deeply rewarding task.