Top Boy Soundtrack: A Who’s Who
London is not all just “pip-pip cheerio”, as seen in the latest Netflix original Top Boy. UK’s music scene has made waves in the past but never quite as significantly as we’re currently seeing. More and more UK artists have gained prominence in the North American market, and whether you like it or not, Drake had something to do with it.
On OVO’s Top Boy soundtrack, Drake and the OVO team curated 17-songs of road rap, UK hip-hop, grime, and UK Drill. Some of the names are considered high-profile in the U.K., while others are still on the come up, but whatever the case is, the majority of them are being formally introduced to international markets because of the Top Boy soundtrack.
With the hype surrounding the show at an all-time high, we’ve broken down everything you need to know about the artists involved in the original soundtrack.
Nafe Smallz might be a name that got on your radar this year through his stand-out performance on Skepta’s “Greaze Mode” but his breakout has been years in the making. The Luton-bred artist first made noise in 2013 following the release of his debut project, New Years Eve Special. After picking up some steam within the underground grime and hip-hop scene, he dropped off his second project, Ozone Music in 2015. That, along with his appearance on Charlie Sloth’s “Fire In The Booth,” helped launch his career to a national platform.
Smallz sound leans more towards the controversial U.K. hip-hop and drill sound than grime, although the influence does peak out at times. His sing-rap delivery shares similarities to the regional sounds coming out of North America — specifically Atlanta, Chicago, and Toronto.
Much like how Top Boy captures the hierarchy of London’s housing projects, Nafe Smallz depicts a similar story while describing the highs and lows to make it to the top of the food chain. Nafe Smallz contributes twice on the soundtrack. “Riding On E” is a reflection of the rise to becoming the Top Boy while “8 Missed Calls” is delivered from first-person perspective of becoming one.
Fresh off of the release of his debut album, Third Avenue, Fredo continues his reign in the UK rap scene with his appearance on the Top Boy soundtrack. Coming from Queen’s Park, London, he’s stated that he just wanted to give a voice for his ends, which he’s successfully accomplished. His debut single, “They Ain’t 100” arrived in 2016 along with the immediate rise of U.K. drill and road rap as a whole.
He continued to flood the streets with his subsequent efforts including his two mixtapes, Table Turn and Get Rich Or Get Recalled. Although the former arrived at the top of 2018, it wasn’t until October that year that he claimed his first number-one single on the charts with “Funky Friday” ft. Dave.
“Freddy” is a vicious and haunting depiction of the roads in the U.K. He channels the energy of Jamie with a tinge of dark humor as he basks in luxuries that come with the gritty dirt of the roads.
The UK drill scene’s caused nationwide controversies due to the rise of knife crime in London and other places in England. Among those who’ve led the wave is Headie One. The rapper’s music is a direct reflection of his real-life — he didn’t even take music seriously until his release from prison.
Although the sounds and themes in his music is a derivative of Chicago’s drill scene, Headie One offers a more lyrical take on the genre. He’s still engulfed in controversies stemming from the genre. He was targeted in an alleged attack from a rival gang at the University Of Bedford in 2018. Shortly after, his concert at a prominent European venue in London was shut down by police after they accused his music of contributing to the rising rate of knife crime in the capital.
Much like everyone else on the soundtrack, Headie One depicts the activities that go on in his area of Tottenham — an area that’s produced UK rap royalty such as Giggs and Jaja Soze. “Hard To Believe” blends tales of his incarceration and time on road, along with the paranoia and stress that comes with it, over a dry instrumental that compliments his cold delivery.
Much like MF DOOM, M Huncho maintains a masked figure which makes him stand-out among his contemporaries. Over moody, trap-infused instrumental, his dazed, auto-tune-laden delivery makes the bleak reality of the streets palatable even to the deaf ear.
The baklava-wearing rapper’s reason for keeping his identity under wraps has a lot to do with his own privacy but the music he makes is as personal as it gets. His woozy melodies blends with his nonchalant delivery about life on the streets and the risks that come with it.
Huncho’s debut album, Utopia arrived at the beginning of the year which included an appearance from Nafe Smallz, among other UK rap acts. The album peaked at number 13 on the UK charts.
M Huncho’s contributions to the Top Boy soundtrack capture his own experiences from a single summer running the trap as well as the risks and paranoia that came with it.
Although the soundtrack has a lot of the vibrant energy of the youth in UK’s grime and hip-hop scene, it also includes artists who’ve helped pave the way for the next generation. Youngs Teflon has been in the game for over a decade, adapting to the times and embracing the new waves as they come. He hasn’t broken into a mainstream market but his work’s solidified his legacy in UK rap.
As an OG in the game, he’s witnessed the evolution of both the genre and the streets. His music is both conscience and lyrical but he strays away from getting too preachy. Instead, he reflects on society’s structure that drives young Black youth towards the streets while also giving his own perspective from his experiences.
The latest season of Top Boy tackles tons of timely subject matter about the structure of the drug trade, along with things like Brexit and gentrification. Teflon’s “Overseer” finds him appropriately detailing his environment from a bird’s eye view, including how the area he grew up in became unrecognizable due to gentrification.
Dave is U.K.’s rising king of rap. In the past few years, his conscientious content has earned him praise across the board. His career initially caught international wave after Drake hopped on the “Wanna Know” remix that debuted on OVO Sound Radio in 2016. Although not necessarily known as a roadman himself, he was in close proximity to it because of his older siblings who’ve spent time behind bars. That’s why he makes a concerted effort to provide a wider scope of societal issues that impact the Black youths, especially when it comes to the cause and effect of the street life.
2019 has been a huge year for Dave so far. He released his debut album, Psychodrama at the beginning of the year to critical and commercial success. He’s also among the two artists featured on the Top Boy soundtrack that were cast in the show. Although brief, Dave made his acting debut as the maniacal incarcerated gang leader, Modie.
Dave, like Nafe Smallz, secured two placements on the OVO soundtrack. Both songs showcased Dave’s range as an artist. “Professor X” is a braggadocious record that sounds partially influenced by Dave’s character in the show. He has a cold, bounce to his flow as he details the high-life. “God’s Eye” sits on the other end of the spectrum. It’s a melancholic record where Dave details the streets as a never-ending game that he’s grown tired of while watching his friends either die or sit in prison. He narrates it as if he’s barely managed to escape the fate while sitting at the top of the food chain.
Although drill music wasn’t addressed in Top Boy, SL is a prime example of when music and the streets collide. SL carries the same enigmatic presence as M Huncho in the sense that they both wear masks but that only gives them more space to provide an unfiltered depiction of their hoods.
Formerly known as Slimz, SL’s been one of the youngest artists from South London to make waves. He garnered a strong underground following in London through loose singles and visuals but it wasn’t until the release of his 2017 single, “Gentlemen” that he was able to make waves across every hood in the UK.
SL falls under the category of UK drill but he’s pushed passed the genre itself and formed his own take on it. “Tropical Drill,” as he describes it, takes on brighter, more upbeat instrumentals while still tackling subject matters that you’d hear in drill, with his own commentary.
SL has a dry delivery to his flow and a cold tone in his voice that sits atop a more vibrant production. “100 Thoughts” off of the Top Boy soundtrack is far more grim than the production gives off. SL details climbing the ranks in the streets, running the ends while still trying to balance his own career in music and evade trouble.
AJ Tracey is another artist like Dave who’s had years under his belt but only recently broke out into the mainstream. His come-up in the game stems back to 2011 when he first began rapping as Looney but he broke into the market officially in 2016. Through freestyles, EPs, and singles, he managed to break out into the market and gain international recognition in North America. His 2017 EP, Secure The Bag! established him even further as the next young artist to blow in the grime scene.
The grime scene — pirate radio, clashes, etc. — helped put AJ Tracey on the map but over the years, he’s carefully blended sounds of UK rap, afro-fusion, and dancehall into grime for a more universal appeal.
UK drill and UK rap are heavily highlighted on this project as its the current sound of the streets in London, but AJ Tracey’s contributions shed light on the sounds thriving in the nightclubs in the city. The heavy electronic influence and sped up BPM captures encapsulates the sweaty rave culture that the UK is known for.
Ghetts is another UK legend who’s spent years putting in work for the grime scene. Stemming back to the mid-00s, Ghetts has released six mixtapes, two studio albums, and two EPs and became one of the few grime artists to get recognition in America. Although he first emerged in 2005, his first official studio album, Rebel With A Cause, only came out in 2014. He’s been nominated for BET Awards in the past.
Ghetts is known for cut-throat lyrics that he intertwines into complex rhyme patterns over grime-based production. However, he isn’t limited to just grime, his projects have all included different influences that give him his own unique flair.
Although he’s not a part of the cast, he has worked with Kano, who plays Sully in Top Boy, on a few occasions.
Ghetts’ contribution to the soundtrack is a dark and foggy record that parallels his rise in the music industry to the streets. He does reflect on the impact of the street on his own outlook of the world and his own desensitization to the streets.
Tottenham’s own Avelino has been getting praise across the board in UK’s rap scene. The rapper’s debut mixtape, Underdog Music helped put a spotlight on the then-budding artist in 2013 before he really broke down the door with the follow-up tape, Iconic Ambition that received praise from the gatekeepers in the grime scene.
Avelino has yet to release a debut album, despite the years under his belt but he’s received major acclaim from critics and veterans in grime. Wretch 32 has been a huge supporter of his, even working with Avelino on a joint project.
2017’s “Energy” marked a major breakout moment for him. The song featured appearances from Skepta and Stormzy and eventually became the main song on the FIFA 18 soundtrack.
Avelino’s efforts on the Top Boy soundtrack come on the song, “Belly Of The Beast.” Avelino’s sing-rap delivery is on full display on this record as he delivers what could possibly be the most radio-friendly record on the soundtrack. With money at the forefront of his mind, Avelino details the obstacles that he has to face in order to get paid, from dealing with opps to dodging federal agents.
Little Simz is undoubtedly one of the most talented young artists in the UK music scene right now but she’s also slowly revealing her skills as a thespian. Simz and Dave are the only two cast members of the third season of Top Boy — not including Kano or Ashley Walters — that also have established music careers.
Simz career stems back to 2010 but it’s been in recent years that she’s received mainstream praise in the U.K. She released four mixtapes and five EPs before officially releasing her debut album, A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons in 2015.
She’s had a huge year so far with Top Boy only adding more fuel to her on-fire career. She released her third studio album, The Grey Area earlier this year followed by a subsequent sold-out North American tour.
Like Drake and Baka’s efforts, Little Simz’ “VENOM” was taken from her 2019 album. Although it doesn’t necessarily follow the themes in Top Boy, per se, she does detail coping with her own mental strains that parallels to many of the characters in the show.
Teeway is a fairly unknown name, and truthfully, there isn’t much information about him out yet. He only broke out this year but with a placement on the Top Boy soundtrack, it seems like he has the potential to be the next to blow. He’s another product of the UK drill scene that appears to still be knee-deep in the streets. Like M Huncho and SL, he also wears a mask to cover his identity in his music videos. His singles, “Tramp,” “Emergency,” and “Honda Civ” have racked up thousands and thousands of views. It’s only a matter of time until he really breaks out.
Teeway’s song, “Feeling It” appeared on the soundtrack. The production on the track has a dark tone to it but it has the drum patterns typically found in more upbeat genres like dancehall and afrobeat. The rapper’s song vividly describes the activities in his own hood which reflects the reality depicted in the show.