Review: Kneecap’s Fine Art offers a masterclass in grimy, musically eclectic bi-lingual hip-hop

David Roy gets to grips with the Irish language hip-hop trio’s long-awaited debut album

 Kneecap: Mo Chara, Móglaí Bap and DJ Próvaí
Kneecap: Mo Chara, Móglaí Bap and DJ Próvaí

FINE Art is the Toddla T-produced first fruit of Kneecap’s record deal with London label Heavenly Recordings.

Given the Belfast trio’s incredible, largely self-generated success thus far, their debut album proper – which follows 2018′s eight track ‘mix-tape’ 3CAG (as in ‘three consonants and a vowel’, Kneecapian slang for ‘MDMA’) – has a lot to live up to.

However, Fine Art actually exceeds expectation, mainly by broadening the band’s musical horizons – they sample both Celtic-fusion fiddler Joe O’Donnell and proto-rave outfit 808 State on its eclectic, yet oddly coherent grab-bag of musical styles – and stepping up the trio’s trademark hybrid lyrical flow, which fluidly flip-flops between Irish and English while detailing grimy substance abuse-fuelled urban fantasies laced with the unmistakable tang of true lived experience and a good whack of jet-black Belfast humour.

The cover of Kneecap's Fine Art
Fine Art is released today

This is a concept album designed to transport listeners into The Rutz, a fictional Belfast pub packed with character/characters where the session never ends and all manner of craic, s***e-talking and bad behaviour is happening from first pours to last orders – and likely beyond.

“T said to us, ‘I don’t mind if you just want to do 12 tunes or whatever, but I’d much prefer to do a cohesive concept album’,” explains Móglaí Bap of the album designed to introduce a new global audience to the Kneecap idiom in advance of their eponymous award-winning fictionalised biopic hitting cinemas in August.

Read more:

“T’s idea was to tell the story of Kneecap. So the record was conceived as the listener stepping into Kneecap’s world. That’s where the idea came to set whole thing in a pub.

“You walk into a pub at the start, there’s someone offering you a drink, there’s a singsong – really, it’s us taking you by the hand and leading you into our world.”

Kicking off with the haunting intro tune 3CAG, which blends dance, ambient and trad into a smooth groove featuring the beguiling, Auto-Tune’d vocals of Lankum’s Radie Peat, Fine Art ducks in and out of The Rutz via dialogue-based interludes interspersed with tunes which detail Kneecap’s story thus far.

They address the perils and perks of growing fame, popularity and success on key numbers like the pumping title tune – which expertly deploys a sample of a sceptical sounding Vinny Hurrell discussing the band’s headline-grabbing DUP-baiting antics on BBC Radio Ulster’s The Nolan Show as a launchpad for its banging chorus – and the prowling, retro hip-hop stylings of ‘mental health vs personal wealth’-themed single Sick in The Head, then detail the cross-community joys of getting off your nut on the chiptune-tinged Parful while sampling music and dialogue from classic ‘lost’ 1990s NI rave documentary Dancing on Narrow Ground.

The trio indulge in controversy-baiting, fantasy-based excursions into drug debt enforcement with the pumping, 808 State-sampling I Bhfiacha Linne, subvert the trad/Irish language scenes on the flute-laced Drug Dealin’ Pagans and share incriminating details of robbing industrial quantities of horse tranquillizer from the local vets (and the messy aftermath of its ingestion) on Rhino Ket, while I’m Flush extols the dubious delights of dealing/doing copious amounts of cocaine.

“We’re Irish speakers living in an urban area, the first or second generation to be born in the city,” explains Mo Chara.

“Traditionally, it’s a rural language after colonialism pushed it out west towards the sea. We wanted to bring the Irish language into the modern era by incorporating aspects of youth culture into it.

Kneecap at Sundance
Kneecap brought a taste of the north to the Sundance Film Festival in January

“There’s a different lifestyle in the city to rural areas. There were no words for drugs in the Irish language, so we had to invent them. We’d recycle old words and apply them to modern things.

“That’s part of the world we want to create, where the Irish language is central and it’s modern.”

Móglaí Bap agrees: “There’s conservative people in the Irish language community who think we’re ruining the language with the words we’re using.

“The beauty of Kneecap is that we not only p*** off people from the unionist background, we also p*** off people from the Irish community. We don’t discriminate who we p*** off.”

There’s even a wee love song on Fine Art – albeit delivered in a typically raw, ribald Kneecap style – in their recent, garage-flavoured single, Love Making, plus their genre-blurring collaboration with Fontaines DC, Better Way To Live, which explores the darker side of hedonism – also the subject of the climactic and cautionary album closer Way Too Much.

This one features the line “take your time with the s*** you be ingesting.” Kneecap as advocates for temperance? Now that is unexpected.

Not content with capturing the unique ambience of The Rutz on their record, Móglaí Bap, Mo Chara and DJ Provaí are now taking this Belfast boozer experience ‘on tour’ to mark the launch of the album.

The first of these pop-up pub events was due to happen at Molly Bloom’s in the heart of Dalston last night, so there’s a very good chance London may already have fallen by the time you’re reading this.

On the strength of Fine Art, it could well be the first step towards world domination for this trio of talented hallions, who have just announced their biggest ever hometown show at the SSE Arena on December 21.

I, for one, welcome our new spidey overlords.

RATING: Four balaclavas out of five