With his chart-topping tracks, international collaborations, and strategic efforts to bridge the gap between UK and US rap cultures, he's opening doors for fellow British artists to follow in his footsteps.
In music circles a question often arises: Why has the UK, endowed with a thriving hip-hop scene brimming with exceptional talent, from the likes of Dave, Little Simz, Stormzy and Loyle Carner, never witnessed a rapper ascend to the echelons of international stardom, particularly within the very birthplace of hip-hop, the United States?
The answer could come down to several factors. The US already boasts a wealth of homegrown talent, so why would it turn its attention to the UK? And the intricacies of British slang and the distinctive sound and rhythms of UK hip-hop can prove perplexing to outsiders.
But now, Central Cee, a 25-year-old rapper hailing from London’s Ladbroke Grove has gained a meteoric level of success, last year becoming the first ever UK rapper to gain one billion streams in a year. And he's been touted by many as the first British rapper to gain true mainstream recognition abroad.
So, how did he do it?
From underground drill rapper to global superstar
Central Cee, affectionately known to his devoted fanbase as "Cench," started his musical journey as a teenager back in 2015, making several appearances on the prominent U.K music platform Link Up TV.
While his style incorporates elements of melodic-trap, afro-beats and traditional hip-hop, he solidified his status in the underground rap scene for his unique take on UK drill music. The genre is characterised by its fast 140 tempo, hard-hitting 808s and thematic links to gang culture and violence. While drill music largely thrived beneath the surface of the UK music scene, Central Cee, along with others like Digga D and Headie One, helped propel it into the mainstream spotlight.
In 2020, the West London native began commanding significant domestic attention with his undeniably catchy tracks "Loading" and "Day in the Life." Together, these songs have garnered close to 500 million streams on Spotify.
So what makes Central Cee stand out from his peers? A key driving force behind his success lies in his innovative evolution of the conventional UK drill sound. Although some may critique him for deviating from his roots, he's managed to find a winning formula by embracing a distinctly more playful and "cutesy" interpretation of drill. By infusing R&B and pop elements into his beats, his music is much more approachable and radio-friendly as evident in his hit tracks, "Obsessed With You" and "LET GO".
Furthermore, Cench's cheeky persona, good looks and stylish fashion undoubtedly contribute to his appeal. With over 8.9 million followers on TikTok, his videos consistently amass between 30 to 50 million views per video. And he's put out collaborations with several prominent UK fashion streetwear brands, such as Corteiz, which released a limited edition 'Corteiz x Central Cee' t-shirt alongside the launch of his '23' mixtape.
The song that changed the trajectory of his career
Cench's real breakthrough came in 2022 with his single "Doja". The allure of the track is obvious: it cleverly incorporates a familiar sample from Eve and Gwen Stefani's 2001 hit "Let Me Blow Ya Mind," it name-drops the chart-topping American rapper and singer Doja Cat, and it opens with the provocative and attention-grabbing line, "How can I be homophobic? My b*tch is gay."
The song quickly became the talk of the internet and blew up on TikTok among Gen-Z music listeners.
It made a striking debut at No. 2 on the UK charts and Doja Cat herself even responded positively to the track on her social media. Notably, Cench also released the music video for the track on the popular US YouTube channel Lyrical Lemonade, making him the first British artist to do so.
If the United States were previously unaware of the rapper's presence, he had now gained their full, undivided attention.
Bridging the gap
Determined to sustain his momentum, Cench appeared on the hugely popular LA radio station, Power 106FM. The show, hosted by the LA Leakers, is recognised for interviewing rap artists and letting them perform a freestyle. During his time on air, Cench brilliantly executed a rap skit explaining the distinctions between UK and US slang. "You say 'What's up?', We say 'Wagwan?' / You call her 'shawty', we call her 'jawn'." The freestyle, which has now amassed six million views on YouTube, serves as a gateway for other UK rappers, dismantling the once-perceived language barrier and making the music more accessible to the American audiences. It's now also a cornerstone of his live shows throughout the United States.
Doing well and other there...
Cench has continued making waves overseas in 2023. Earlier this summer, he became the first male UK artist to join the ranks of the influential American hip-hop magazine XXL's 'Freshman Class' roster. The annual selection aims to spotlight the hottest talents in rap music and has historically helped propel the likes of J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar and Wiz Khalifa into stardom. He's also received recognition from US superstars Travis Scott and Tyga, who have both re-shared his music on their social medias.
Moreover, in August of this year, he released another radio freestyle, this time with arguably the biggest rapper of the decade, Drake. Their track, titled 'On The Radar Freestyle,' made a remarkable debut by entering the US's Hot 100 Charts at No. 80, marking Cench's first appearance on this chart.
Back on home turf, Cench released the mega-hit "Sprinter", with fellow British rapper Dave, which became the first-ever UK rap track to make it to ten weeks at No. 1 in the official charts.
The question that now looms is whether Cench's remarkable journey is the spark that will ignite a broader movement? Will we witness more UK rappers crossing over and gaining the recognition they deserve on the global stage? Can they maintain this momentum and continue to break through the language and cultural barriers that have traditionally separated the UK and US hip-hop scenes?
Only time will tell, but with Cench leading the way, the future looks brighter than ever for UK rap.