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A writhing mass of arms and torsos, armed with cameraphones and the occasional vape, surge towards Central Cee as he takes on one of American hip-hop’s rites of passage: a show in New York City’s Irving Plaza. The London rapper’s first two mixtapes – Wild West, from 2021, and 23, from 2022 – debuted at No 2 and No 1 in the UK, and he was nominated for British artist of the year at this year’s Brits alongside Harry Styles and Stormzy. Cee specialises in expressive streams of consciousness that contain a matrix of paradoxes – romantic and realist, hard and unguarded, nostalgic and present – and, crucially, he’s boyband-pretty. But while he has been a UK sensation for some time, this is his first concert in the US. He compares his approach with that of the Louisiana rapper NBA YoungBoy. “There’s a lot of people that will testify that he’s shit because there’s no science to his thing, musically. What I think sells is his personality and his vulnerability in the music,” he says, having an epiphany. “Actually, that probably influenced me a lot.” Even through a muted delivery, he can convey many things concurrently. “When I rap, I’m in a neutral mood and I can relate to everything, every emotion that I’ve ever felt.” UK Rap’ is the album’s outro and another likely to do well on the charts. The catchy hook, sung by each man in turn, shows where these two see themselves at the moment: “She don’t listen to UK rap, if it ain’t Dave or Cench”. It’s hard to argue with. This is a heavyweight collaboration between two stars at the top of their game.

Cee started putting out music in 2017, inspired by the melodious trapwave sound that was engulfing the UK rap scene at the time. Listening now, he sounds nearly unrecognisable, the drab Auto-Tune in his singsong flows worlds away from the brutalist nature of his music today. He was, he says, “on this ‘pretty boy’ ting, kind of. That’s how people was perceiving me. I was just trying to find a sound and make money.” To Cee, it is possible to hold more than one idea at the same time, even if they are contradictory: an attempt to make sense of the chaos of his psyche, where intrusive thoughts can win and rise to the surface. Although the likes of Ari may not see the nuance, expressing and processing these thoughts doesn’t mean they’re validated. “I have a positive relationship with my mother, with all women,” Cee says. “But at the same time, I get angry at my mum, sometimes. I might say something rude to her, to my girl. It’s just a human thing. And it comes out in my music.”Central Cee released his chart-topping mixtape ‘23’ in 2022, including the hit single ‘Obsessed With You’. He followed up with his most streamed song to date, ‘Doja’, and he released the single ‘Me & You’ earlier in 2023. Central Cee is set to play the Other Stage at Glastonbury later this month, as well as appear at the Governors Ball Festival in New York. Dave won Mercury and Brit Awards for his 2019 debut album ‘Psychodrama’, while 2021 follow-up ‘We’re All Alone in This Together’ won a MOBO Award and earned him a second Brit for Best Hip Hop/Grime/Rap Act. Central Cee performs on BBC Radio 1Xtra stage at the Reading festival, 2021. Photograph: Joseph Okpako/WireImage

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