During the making of his debut album, Berwyn was sleeping on a mattress on the floor with barely anything to his name. His lyrics recall dire moments – “I used to see your mum every time I go visit mine in prison” (“Trap Phone”) – and a time when all he had was his music – “It was just me, myself, the stars and my guitar in the night” (“Glory”). This was almost two years ago. Now, he’s won third place for BBC’s Sound of 2021, has appeared on Later… with Jools Holland, and worked with XL Records founder, Richard Russell, appearing on two tracks on his latest album, Friday Forever; Berwyn even took the forefront here, winning praise from Pitchfork as “the record’s breakout star”.
It’s clear why. Berwyn’s trajectory resembles a telling story of overcoming adversity. And it is for this reason that Demotape/Vega, his debut album, holds power.
Starkly confessional and leaving nothing to question, Demotape/Vega is a striking outlook on the life that formed Berwyn’s artistry. He enjoyed a musical upbringing, having grown up with a father who was a DJ and a musically enthusiastic mother. But after emigrating from Trinidad and Tobago to London at nine years old, Berwyn struggled with homelessness, losing his parents, and resorting to vices.
On Demotape, these themes are told with touching depth, guided by minor-key sonorities and a sombre pace. What’s worth noting, though, is that the music itself is nothing complex. His production is relatively minimal, at most comprising a piano, bass, synths, and drums. Some of the instruments he even taught himself, though for this reason he admits, “I’m not even sure if I play them properly”. Even then, the music does everything it needs to provide an oppressive mood to the album. And crucially, it lets Berwyn’s lyrics take the forefront.
The album’s leading track “017 Freestyle” is an urgent stream-of-consciousness, rushing through touch points that shaped his story: “I left school and I went straight into the family business / Wherе I learned to build a future off of half a ouncе”, “This wasn’t my choice, I wanted to go to uni / It was the government who told man I wasn’t allowed”, “Sometimes it feels like I’m the only one who isn’t in jail”, he reveals. His delivery here is composed – it’s a story he’s probably used to telling. But line by grim line, he lets his guard down. His voice grows deeply urgent that towards the end he lets out a visceral, anxious cry: “My whole life they tried to tell me ‘Big boys don’t cry’ / How ‘bout we give ‘em oceans and tides? / Fuck!”. It’s an astounding moment, and for it to happen towards the album’s end emulates his prolonged struggle to keep a brave face. It’s Berwyn at his most vulnerable, spilling words like burst pipes and like returning to your home after months in a foreign land.
After a hopeful introduction (“Mourning Preyers”), what he chooses to follow with is something more grave. “Ashtray” grimly plays on the lyrics from Jay Z’s “99 Problems”, taking its hook to emphasise Berwyn’s dark reliance on drugs: “99 problems in my ashtray / I could be your problem if you say so”. Marked by a gruff tone and grisly minor synth chords, that single line predetermines the album’s trajectory. Its hook takes this further, even with minimal words:
‘Cause it’s broken
Significantly, these devices that function to look clearer into something fail in Berwyn’s darkness. “If I stopped blowing smoke at you would I be able to see you clearer?”, he sings.
Rarely does he resort to major harmonies, but when they come, it portrays a poignant image of strength and determination. In the reflective “Crushed Velvet”, Berwyn narrates words of encouragement from his partner, recalling when “we were broke together”, “Told me if I never took the dive then the parachute would probably never open”. Others may see this as perfunctory advice, but Berwyn takes it with grave value: “Shit, that’s wise words my baby, well spoken / Or should I say, rather, well put together”. And for someone who was “so used to the darkness I still walk with my eyes closed”, every piece of advice is not taken for granted: “But not for a single second hopeless”. The way he sings, “Now here I am under these strobe lights singing the same songs we wrote together” just a few lines later, you can almost hear the disbelief at how far he’s come.
Other times, the major harmonies underlie stories of inner-city violence, grief and fallen friendships. “You used to call me on my trap phone / That’s love deeper than wishing wells / I know you only call to wish me well”, he sings on “Trap Phone”. On paper, the opening line recalls Drake’s “Hotline Bling”. But Berwyn takes Drake’s defensive line and turns it into something more sensitive and reflective, notably because this novelty device that links him to his drug-dealing past is now a symbol of his growth: “Me, I’m doing fine / You know me, young decreased lightning, always smiling”, he sings. Each time he sings that opening line, however, serves as a reminder of his loved ones that are still in that dejected state; his voice breaks off into a mournful crack, wondering if they’ll share the same fate: “I just wonder if you’re fine on the other side / ‘Cause everybody has their struggles and their battle cries”.
And so he recognises that it’s hard to let go of his past. In the album’s finale (“Farewell”), he sings, “I don’t if it’s wise / To leave all of this behind me” over sombre piano chords. The least he can do, however, is say goodbye. As he takes us to the end, we imagine Berwyn making his way to the other side, revealing the meaning of the titular Vega: a planet where “self-sufficient and incredibly strong-willed people” reside. It’s his escape, and he can finally relate to people outside of his past:
They are likely to be poets, architects, designers and many other related professions / Though they can become quite easily distracted they are nonetheless hugely driven characters who would stop at nothing to see out the completion of their work.
Today, Berwyn is a different man. He lives comfortably in East London with his name on a global radar. Demotape/Vega is the album that brought him here today, but it was also the outlet needed to reflect and move on from the past.
Favourite Tracks: ASHTRAY, TRAP PHONE, CRUSHED VELVET, 017 FREESTYLE