Review: Potter Payper, ‘Real Back in Style’

The East London rapper’s debut album is a theatrical blockbuster, vividly journeying through passionate tales of street pain, ambitions and glory for the history books.

There’s a phrase for when an artist’s second album chases heights set by the first. But there’s no equivalent phrase for the debut effort. Let’s coin one now, and call it the debut album dread. Ever felt time drag for a debut so much you become incredibly nervous for the result? Potter Payer’s an artist that’s been living in that dread for a full decade. During that time, he practiced what most UK rappers honed in the early 2010s; putting out mixtapes in the hopes of building a little buzz. In Potter’s case, his time was well spent, coming with the Training Day series that’s sealed by classic status. The album could have arrived much earlier if not for unfortunate prison stints (and undergoing another at the time of this release). Now that it’s here, and titled after his signature tagline, can he avoid the debut dread that plagued most rappers of his generation?

Potter Payper has consistently proven himself on a mixtape level. He now proves his worth on an album level, completing the assessment to give grounds for being one of the best rappers to ever represent the country.

Photography: Elliot Hensford

Upon announcement, Potter Payper spoke about not compromising his vision despite signing to a major label. He kept his word. From minute one, the red carpet is out for Potter, making his way to the premiere screening of his biopic. Real Back in Style sounds and feels like a grand event, in line with the late Nipsey Hussle’s Victory Lap album, who also channelled years of independent mixtapes, signed to a major, then released his sole Grammy-nominated album. It is the strongest debut album in UK rap since Dave’s Psychodrama and Slowthai’s Nothing Great About Britain, its eyes comfortably set on the history books.

His mixtapes have always held a biographical angle, but this time it’s enhanced and refined, with polished backdrops and a passionate vigour to assist him, as if the mixtapes up to this point were mere trailers (or training) for the real deal.

Throughout Real Back in Style, Potter grinds through serious storytelling. All the best rap albums deliver storytelling tracks, and Potter’s more than conscious of making the effort for them here. He details his family history on “All My Life, If I Had”, pondering the butterfly effect of choices that led to his birth up to now. The iconic “Toy Story” gains a vivid sequel that borders prime horrorcore. It gets emotional on “Money or Victims (Kayla’s Story)”, depicting a tragic tale of substance and sexual abuse, and Potter’s responsibility as a drug dealer amongst it (“Am I making money or just victims?”). It’s songs like these that magnify Payper’s fixation on album-level songwriting.

Those moments come equipped with passionate rhymes and delivery. Potter consistently raps like it’s his last breath, exclaiming bars Meek Mill-style to prove he’s rapping with optimal conviction. “I’m a freedom writer,” he proclaims on “Quite Befitting”, leading the bank of confident statements made across the record. This is the most relieving part of Real Back in Style—the ink from the pen isn’t diluted. Rather it’s enhanced on most occasions, tethered to the fact his bars are why fans adore the Training Day series so much. The credits read Def Jam Records, but nothing about the album is commercial. A rapper like Potter Payper can afford this luxury on a major label effort in 2023.

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The greatest enhancer is the startling soundscape. Potter’s working with production this time round, not beats passively emailed in the hopes of landing a big placement. There’s progression to the tracks rather than simple trap loops, granting the cinematic spirit to the biopic feeling. Soulful trumpets appear on the aforementioned “Quite Befitting” and “All My Life”, gospel samples on “Multifaceted” and grand finale strings on the closer. Singles “Corner Boy” and “Blame Brexit” sound much better within the album, proving they weren’t strong leaders due to the record’s intimate nature. The Harry Fraud-produced “Track Flocaine” is the level of beat you’d have found on Fraud’s work on Benny the Butcher’s The Plugs I Met 2, towering over ears like skyscrapers dripping in Potter’s purple rain.

Given that rappers love personifying hip hop as their romantic partner, Potter Payper treats Real Back in Style like his big day, where the spouse is a prime rap album, and the vows are the songwriting, lyricism and production. He went from rapping over Kanye West and Mac Miller beats, to pulling a wholly unique vision out the bag that’s right in contention for best UK rap album of the year.

With Real Back in Style, Potter Payper passes the album test; the test that really matters when it’s all said and done. He can now brag a classic mixtape trilogy and a compelling album worthy of the same plaudits, something most mainstream UK rappers cannot claim. When Potter Payper performs at this level, real can never be out of style.

8.5 / 10

Best tracks: “What They Ain’t”, “Real Back in Style”, “Multifaceted”, “Track Flocaine”, “Quite Befitting”, “Money or Victims (Kayla’s Story)”, “Toy Story 2”, “White Ash”