From U2’s rock anthems and Enya’s smoky dirges to Snow Patrol’s post-Britpop, Ireland, Scotland, and Northern Ireland have produced some noteworthy musicians whose sounds have become staples in the United States: It’s hard not to immediately associate the TV show Grey’s Anatomy with Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” (2006), or any sorrowful event with Enya’s “Only Time” (2000). But despite all the artists who have crossed over and all the genres they have influenced, hip-hop hasn’t been so lucky—that is, until Rejjie Snow.
Born and raised in Dublin, the 24-year-old rapper has become Ireland’s most popular hip-hop export. (The trio Hare Squead, whose contagious “Herside Story” was adapted for GoldLink’s 2017 album At What Cost, isn’t far behind.) Snow began garnering attention in 2011, back when he was recording under the moniker Lecs Luther. His breakout track, “Dia Dhuit”—an Irish greeting—was a forceful introduction, all tongue-twisting syllables and nimble flow. The timing made him sound like a long-lost member of Odd Future, the collective whose hype was reaching a fever pitch around the same time. Snow’s 2013 EP, Rejovich, a grim and cacophonous project that wore its MF Doom influence proudly, contributed to his rapidly growing buzz and had fans anxious for more music. Released on February 16, Snow’s debut studio album, Dear Annie, has been four years in the making. Here he presents a clear improvement on his earlier releases, a fully realized set of songs complete with a conceptual outline.
There’s not much on Dear Annie that would immediately suggest Snow’s nationality. The cover features a redheaded girl in a lush green field—apparently an old photo of a friend’s mom. Snow’s accent peeks through on occasion, but the album largely sounds borderless. That an Irish rapper has been embraced by a sizable US audience is a testament to hip-hop’s cultural omnipresence; that it took this long is a testament to just how hard it is to break through in a genre that is still largely centered stateside, the Internet notwithstanding. Save for Canada and, to a lesser extent, London’s grime scene, the tiny proportion of rappers who achieve stardom remains stubbornly American—even though the music has always borrowed from around the world, incorporating influences such as Afrobeat and dancehall. Snow, whose father is Nigerian and mother Irish-Jamaican, has plenty to offer, and his debut album is a striking picture of international collaboration.
At an ambitious 20 tracks, Dear Annie has very little fat and an abundance of versatility. Taking its cues from jazz, funk, and various eras of hip-hop—especially the fusion of N.E.R.D., in addition to its Odd Future–like outsider approach—the album chronicles the decay of a romantic relationship. On several of the songs, Snow’s baritone makes even the most upbeat jam sound like a quiet storm. “Egyptian Luvr,” the lead single, is the peak of this effect: Kaytranada’s smooth disco production provides a discordant space for Snow to mourn his relationship. “I want you to stay / Forever,” he sings alongside Dana Williams, who lends her satiny soul to three of the album’s tracks, before suggesting that they “Leave it in the past.”
But Snow brings so much more to the table than just pop music’s favorite lyrical inspiration. Questions of death and spirituality show up often on the album: “And when I fly myself to heaven, gates will open for me / I’ll be with brothers I no longer have praying for me / I still believe in Jesus Christ, but what’s the point in mourning?” he wonders on “Oh No!” “Room 27” pairs loneliness and morbid thoughts of joining the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin in the so-called 27 Club with twinkling synths and Williams’s breezy vocals, to mind-bending effect. It’s one of the album’s standouts (and provides a trace of the darker-hued rhymes that earned Snow the spotlight in the first place).
“The Rain” is similarly bleak, this time backed by frequent Chance the Rapper collaborator Cam O’bi’s piano-driven production. Snow’s voice is well suited for lyrics like “my actions / Keep on haunting me, my / Demons are my bitch when I sleep,” his cadence staggering each line into the next. Much like Williams with her appearances, O’bi offers the song its only hint of light in a pleading hook: “Just one of them days when the rain falls down / Wash my tears away.”
Dear Annie isn’t all thunderstorms, though. The whimsical “Charlie Brown” is a remake of the hit “Steady Song” by the Irish funk-rock outfit Republic of Loose. It’s a lively nod to Snow’s background, but even for listeners who don’t know its source material, the absurd lyrics and feel-good synth-and-guitar bounce make it a memorable moment of respite. “Greatness,” meanwhile, is a heartfelt tribute to Snow’s mother and offers the best picture of who he is and where he came from. He raps about his upbringing (Sisqó and Sega Genesis get name-checked) and acknowledges that his mother has always counted as his anchor, his “lifeline.” The production, courtesy of Kendrick Lamar collaborator Rahki, leaves Dear Annie ending on a note of uplift. The album’s final words: “Everything’s gonna be fine.”