10 Years Later: Reflecting on Lowkey’s ‘Soundtrack to the Struggle’

Hip hop is fundamentally rooted in anti-establishment. From Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” (1989) to Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture” (2020), it is never far away from challenging authority. Struggle has no language, which is why rap music is one the driving art forms for conveying a message.

In Lowkey’s case, he has spent his whole career spreading a message. On 16 October 2011, British rapper Lowkey released his second studio album, Soundtrack to the Struggle. With its rollout dating back to 2009, Soundtrack to the Struggle is simultaneously one of the greatest UK hip hop albums and most overlooked UK albums of all-time. Its name is not one that crops up in mainstream conversations, but rather one that is celebrated in underground communities, well-versed on the ins and outs of British hip hop.

Ten years later, there is a reason why it still impacts listeners and society today. In fact, there are several.

At 95 minutes and 26 tracks, Soundtrack to the Struggle is a behemoth of an album. But it fully justifies every minute, a rarity for lengthy albums. The winning rule for this is an artist that has plenty to say, and Lowkey has more than enough on his mind. When pieced together, it is sequenced to perfection, threaded by its interconnected themes and musical genius.

It is easy to label Soundtrack to the Struggle a political record. After all, Lowkey dissects systematic greed, Middle-Eastern genocide, worldly corruption, questions government motives and audits arms dealers. But it is more than a political statement. Politics affect our everyday life. So with that in mind, the content of Soundtrack to the Struggle is simply a documentation of everyday life; our day-to-day that is convoluted by higher powers.

Soundtrack to the Struggle is entrenched with messages to take heed of. “Too Much” denounces the capitalist structure of society, bringing home the ever-debated concept of “money can’t buy happiness”. The cult classic “Long Live Palestine” is the de facto anthem for Middle-Eastern freedom, a touching callout to end Palestinian oppression. “Something Wonderful” shows appreciation for women of all creed and colours. “Hand on Your Gun” educates the listener on military funding, uncovering revelations of shady companies.

The gems do not stop there, but more importantly they are never overbearing. Lowkey avoids the fine line of being a preacher, possessing the rare skill of covering a conscious topic without spoiling the long-term enjoyment of a song.

"Money can buy a house, but it can't buy a home / 
So even with money you still feel all alone / 
Money can buy you friends but it can't buy family / 
Money can't make you happy, that's just a fallacy / 
It can buy a bath but it can't buy purity / 
It can buy bodyguards but it can't buy security / 
While people around the world starve, I eat / 
'Cause money can buy war but it can't buy peace"

—Too Much, Verse 1

Contrary to the political content, Soundtrack to the Struggle is often tender in sound, matching the moments where Lowkey gets personal. Production was handled by Show N Prove, Nutty P, Red Skull, Guy Bass, Beatnick, K-Salaam and more, working together to curate the album’s mature tone. Elements of boom bap, soul and classical music are incorporated alongside rich samples (Lauryn Hill, Bloodrock, Mavado). Which is no wonder why Soundtrack to the Struggle is one of the best-produced albums UK rap has ever seen.

The musical side of Soundtrack to the Struggle is exactly how it retains its replay value. The content can be heavy to consume, so Lowkey ensures there is beauty in the composition. In the case of its hooks, they are consistently catchy, but retains their focus on the message being told.

One of the best songs is “Cradle of Civilisation”, a soothing ode to Lowkey’s Iraqi heritage. It babies the ears, guided to perfection by one of the many standout hooks by Mai Khalil. “Haunted” is fitting of its title, inducing goosebumps through Lowkey’s remembrance of his late brother. “Dreamers” further immortalises Lowkey’s brother while touching on mental health, justifying the moving sampling of Lauryn Hill’s “To Zion”. Moments like these bring deeper insight into Lowkey’s identity amongst an album holding the weight of humanity on its shoulders.

Contextually, the album serves similar significance. Soundtrack to the Struggle was released at a time when music videos were the main source of promotion. Working closely with GlobalFaction, over a dozen music videos were shot from London to Cuba. Multiple videos have amassed over a million views. No GRM Daily, no Link Up TV. Just Lowkey and the strength of his loyal fanbase.

For an entirely independent release, Soundtrack to the Struggle challenged chart protocol, a buried detail of its legacy. STTS was close to a top 40 placement, entering the midweek chart at number 33. It ultimately landed at number 57 on the UK Albums Chart, driven by strong performance in iTunes downloads (remember those?).

Looking at the charts nowadays, it is easy to assume UK rap always had it easy. But Lowkey’s independent success was unprecedented, especially back in 2011; an entirely self-released British rap album sandwiched in the charts between Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and Feist’s Metals. A politically-charged album should not have crept amidst pop records, but it did.

The lyricism on Soundtrack to the Struggle is among the all-time best in the UK (and beyond). Lowkey is dextrous in the way he conveys a topic, incorporating dense rhyme schemes without straying from the subject matter. There is no case of ‘over-rapping’ where rappers rap for the sake of flaunting skill. The writing is measured, which is exactly how Lowkey avoids losing replay value. Simply put, no lines are wasted across any verse.

"Just remember I was destined to fail / 
At every level they tell you the rebels will never prevail / 
Heaven or hell, whatever the weather, you never can tell / 
You know you've lost a loved one when you remember their smell / 
I was born to fight oppression, but I'm traumatised and stressing / 
With this borderline depression, swear I'm haunted by your presence / 
You get all of my confessions, pray the Lord provides His blessing / 
And I soar as high as heaven but it's sort of like I'm guessing"

–Haunted, Verse 1

Ten years later, its songs and content still resonate. A connection is built from the tracks to the listener. There is purpose and power in the words, made to be beyond heard, but internalised and put into practice. Genuine substance is hard to come by, yet Soundtrack to the Struggle is effortlessly full of it. Lowkey means every word he’s saying.

Over the course of the decade, Soundtrack to the Struggle has earned its status as an underground classic. It is an album full of heart, full of sincerity, and above all, full of humanity.

Ten years later, “Long Live Palestine” is still echoed across Free Palestine rallies worldwide – just one example of the lasting messages and missions of Soundtrack to the Struggle. It is deeper than the music, there is a greater purpose at play; one that Lowkey illustrates start to finish.

We all have a voice. Soundtrack to the Struggle shows how you can use it.

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