The Manchester experimental artist fuses grime, drill, ambient, dancehall and more on their intoxicating new record
In their new collection of songs, Not A Dream But A Controlled Explosion, Manchester rapper and producer Iceboy Violet finds compelling ways of exploring the relationship between fantasy and reality. Following their bold, vigorous debut EP Vanity – featuring a cadre of fellow Manchester-based experimentalists including Blackhaine, AYA and Space Afrika – their first entirely self-produced project is a more elastic, unpredictable affair: skirting between woozy ambient, brash hip hop and global club. Rather than utterly distinct from the ‘real world’, fantasy is here shown to both draw from reality and help press it into shape.
This project is most interested in fantasy’s bearing upon our sense of self. “At certain times in my life, I’ve been really caught up about certain things in terms of race, gender and whether I’m a ‘real musician,’” they explain. “This is partially an attempt to discard all that because I think it’s all useless.” Lyrics about illusions or unreality dominate the record: “My life feels like a movie” they rap in ‘Wounded Coogi’, amidst references to “beautiful lies” and “smoke and mirrors.” “It’s also a way to talk about things I wouldn’t have easily talked about otherwise, because they’re very intimate or private.”
This interplay between fantasy and reality is also expressed through the production. Iceboy Violet’s emotive performances anchor the listener through a dream-like landscape of rolling synth textures, ethereal vocal samples and reverb-drenched percussion. Without displacing us from this setting, the tracks present constant shifts in texture and mood: from the brooding, inquisitive ‘Black Gold’ to the agitated ‘Refracted’. “It was about trying to get at it from all these different angles,” they say when asked about this fragmented, disjointed structure. This is emphasised by the brevity of these eight tracks, only two of which break the three-minute mark, and the manner in which some are split internally: ‘Street Dogs Have Wings’ moves from bombastic hip-hop into an entirely instrumental second half, employing erratic percussion and haunting synths reminiscent of Speaker Music’s Soul-Making Theodicy.
This fragmented approach underscores Iceboy Violet’s frequent references to things breaking throughout Not A Dream But A Controlled Explosion. They imagine themselves smashing “into a thousand pieces” on ‘Refracted’, and being pulled apart “’til I rip, ‘til I splinter” in ‘Wounded Coogi’. “Something I talk about in my live sets is knowing that breaking is part of life, and being willing to break so I can put things back together again,” they explain.
A different kind of fragmentation occurs in ‘Paris, Bradford’, where the word ‘Paris’ is splintered into a list of pop-cultural artefacts: “I’m Paris Hilton, I’m Paris syndrome, I’m ‘Paris, Texas’, I’m Plaster of Paris.”
“Paris is an incredible city because of all the things that are projected onto it – it’s one of those places where fantasy meets reality,” they say. “There’s the way Americans see it as this very high-class dream destination, then you’ve got the drill rappers in Paris that have a completely different experience of it.”
A similar blurring takes place in ‘Pablo’s Cathedral’, the title of which evokes both St. Paul’s Cathedral and ‘La Catedral’: a prison built by Pablo Escobar for his own 1991 incarceration, luxuriously appointed with a bar, football pitch and jacuzzi. “He built his own prison, and it was also a sort of heaven,” Iceboy Violet suggests.
“Limitation, fear and confinement are also involved in fantasy – the fantasy of ‘the good life’ can be limiting in a way.” The title also highlights this track’s use of Biblical imagery, with the line “Soft ground for a home” playing upon the parable of the man building a house on sand. “It’s like I’m putting all my energy into this mercurial fantasy, and it’ll wash away, but that’s fine.” Other sources for this closing track include Ana Kavan’s 1967 novel Ice. “The lines between reality and fantasy really blur in that book, and if you read it without trying to find the seams you won’t.” This blurriness is supported by the track’s use of vocal processing: the line “nothing lies quite like life” mingles with a rising wave of burbling, inscrutable vocal samples.
The beat of ‘Pablo’s Cathedral’ also reflects Not A Dream But A Controlled Explosion’s embrace of various shades of dance music, drawing from Iceboy Violet’s experiences of UK and global club sounds around Manchester. “It feels more honest and British than me trying to do trap or boom bap stuff,” they explain, claiming it also prompted a greater variety in vocal styles. “With ‘Ekklipse’ I made a dancehall beat with these sparse vocals: it’s a club track, and gave me the space to say little impactful things without filling in too many of the gaps. With ‘Pablo’s Cathedral’ I could repeat the same thing over and over like a mantra. It’s from the lineage of grime and garage I guess – just rapping over what’s around.”
Iceboy Violet’s experiences in Manchester have had a much broader influence on their work to date. Last year’s The Vanity Project featured a raft of peers from the city’s currently vital experimental scene including Blackhaine, whose EP Armour II also features an appearance from Iceboy Violet. Going back further, readers may be familiar with Iceboy Violet’s membership to local experimental collective Boygirl, contributing to their 2019 Focus mixtape compiling remixes of Charli XCX’s ‘Focus’.
“I started that shit off, and my remix is probably the weakest on there,” they laugh. “I made my remix for fun, then sent it to AYA. She went ‘I’m going to do one’, then everyone else did too, and they all did it way better.”
The city remains an important influence on Not A Dream But A Controlled Explosion. “When I wrote ‘Street Dogs Have Wings’, it was with very particular images of Manchester in mind,” they note. “I think where you are almost always influences the music you make. It’s where I first started clubbing, it’s where these DJs that inspired me are from, and it’s where I met AYA, Blackhaine and Rainy Miller” – the last of whom helped mix this new project. “I’m very inspired by the people around me. The flipside is that I’m also very competitive with them. I want to make the best stuff I can, because these people are not stopping.”
This project also appears to have influenced Iceboy Violet’s broader relationship with their music. “I think I loosened my grip on the ‘truth’, and was able to let it go in service of making music that feels ‘right’,” they explain. “There’s a lot of truth and real experience in it, but I became more able to say: ‘This is who I am’, and: ‘This is what this is’ without it necessarily being currently true: just in the hope these things can become real through the act of saying them.
“I’m very aware of the role fantasy plays in my life. I have a lot of crushes and I fantasise a lot, then there’s being a rapper, where the line between truth and fantasy blurs,” they explain. “In the same way a visual artist might explore the same area or basic concept throughout their career, this feels like something I’ll come back to throughout the rest of the music I make.”
Photography by Oliver KGH and styling by Lou Webb