Robert - Orange Is The New Black

On Friday March 25th, Black Country emcee Robert released Orange Is The New Black, a poignant alt-rap debut which began life behind bars. With features including Jason Williamson (Sleaford Mods), Slug (Atmosphere) and Rag N Bone Man, the nine-track LP spans low-slung hip hop to simmering acoustics, and weaves together raw reflections on life in and after prison.

The first bars of Orange Is The New Black were penned in HMP Channings Wood where Robert was serving his third sentence in just under two decades. A visit from his son gave him the impetus to break the cycle of reoffending, and writing became a means for processing his guilt and trauma.

Produced by The Purist (Action Bronson, MF DOOM, Freddie Gibbs) and Sonnyjim (Conway, Roc Marciano, Da$H) the resultant record takes its sound from the sprawling psych and punk records Robert grew up with, inflected with a heartfelt love of sample-based music.

It opens with the gritty blues of “Kelly Had a Seizure” – where a fluent verse from veteran rapper Kool Keith contrasts Robert’s tense retelling of decadence and debauchery on the streets of West Bromwich.

The album’s centrepiece “Daddy Was A Bastard” is perhaps the record’s most vulnerable moment, with its refrain (“I’m trying hard to say / But I can’t say what I want to“, sampled from “obscure 70s rock track”) anchoring Robert’s writing on the loss of a much-admired father.

Closer “Becky“, featuring a softly-spoken hook, is the album’s only love song, a beatless, tender apology for a string of missteps, and a gentle plea for forgiveness.

The album takes its title from two places – the prison-based HBO series of the same name, and, more obscurely, the life of controversial Indian spiritual leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, aka Osho. Robert found Osho’s work in the prison library, and it struck a chord with him, helping him to find stillness in a world of violence and chaos. Ranjeesh is immortalised on penultimate track “The Bhagwhan“, a slice of driving psychedelia featuring UK emcee Kosyne.

Orange Is The New Black is out on Antelope Records. Other features include Jman, Soweto Kinch and Tommy Jules.

Robert - Orange Is The New Black

The Story of Orange is the New Black

Robert grew up on a council estate in Great Bridge, West Bromwich, a place that gave him his indelible Black Country accent.

The eclectic, guitar-driven sound of Orange Is The New Black was forged in his childhood; his parents brought him up on The Beatles, Queen and Black Sabbath, and in his teens, he connected with the omnipresent sounds of Brit Pop, and the lo-fi raga and jungle proliferated by pirate radio. Hip hop finally found him aged 19, through the now-legendary Rawkus Records Soundbombing compilation.

Writing Behind Bars

Robert first went to prison at the dawn of the millennium, and returned twice more in 2010 and 2016. During his last year-long stint, a visit from his son brought his choices into sharp focus, and made him vow to turn his life around.

Before the last sentence, I wanted to constantly prove my reputation… live up to my name“, he admits. “I felt like I would let people down if I didn’t act like everyone thought I should. My children were the reason I finally let my ego go. I remember being on a visit and my son asked me why I had done the bad thing that made me a prisoner. I couldn’t answer him. I felt shame and disgust for what I was doing to them. That’s when it all changed for me“.

With nothing but a cold cell and a blank notepad for company, Robert began writing bars as a way to process his feelings. Friend and confidante Beat Butcha (Eminem, Dckwrth, Isiah Rashad) sent him a beat tape, over which the confessional lyrics to single “Porridge” were written. “The words spilled out of me. I didn’t write them – they just appeared as a mirror to my feelings. I was lost, and guilty for all the pain I had put my family through. Writing was all I had in jail. Nothing else mattered“.

Forging The Sound

When Robert was finally released, he went straight to work on creating the album he’d imagined during his year of confinement. Old friends The Purist (Action Bronson, MF DOOM, Freddie Gibbs) and Sonnyjim (Conway, Roc Marciano, Da$H) were enlisted to produce it, and wanted to create a unique, quintessentially British palette for Robert to rap over. That meant leaning heavily into the folk, rock and punk records that they’d all grown up with. “Many a great stateside rapper has pulled soul and jazz samples from their parent’s record collections – Motown, Satx, Blue Note…” says The Purist. “We’ve done the same thing here“.

The features on the record mirror the eclecticism of its sound, with stadium soul artist Rag N Bone Man standing next to obscure fan favourite Kool Keith. Two of the album’s biggest appearances – by Slug of Atmosphere, and Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods – crystallised a lifetime of fandom for Robert. “I am a massive Sleaford Mods fan, so when The Purist played me the idea for “No Cooperation”, I immediately thought of them. We sent the song to Jason and he was down. The rest is history“. Slug’s contribution to track “Nowhere City” was made especially poignant when he asked for his fee to be donated to the TUBMAN charity, which supports people of all genders and cultural backgrounds struggling with relationship violence, substance abuse, mental health, and other forms of trauma.

When asked how he wants the album to be received, Robert says he wishes to set an example for his kids, and their peers, who might associate vulnerability with weakness. “I am an artist, not a criminal. I want young people to realise that they can write and express emotion and feeling and still have respect. It’s OK to have an ego, but do not let that define who you are“.

Track List

  1. Kelly Had A Seizure (ft. Sonnyjim, Kool Keith) 03:24
  2. Nowhere City (ft. Sonnyjim, Slug of Atmosphere, Tommy Jules & Soweto Kinch) 04:04
  3. Porridge (ft. Sonnyjim, Rag’n’Bone Man) 03:34
  4. 15 Years (ft. Sonnyjim) 02:59
  5. Daddy Was A Bastard (ft. Sonnyjim) 03:09
  6. Little Green Bags (ft. Sonnyjim, Jman) 02:22
  7. No Co-operation (ft. Sonnyjim, Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods) 02:41
  8. The Bagwan (ft. Sonnyjim, Kosyne) 02:32
  9. Becky (ft. Sonnyjim) 03:14

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