“I’m not shy at all. I just … I’m not a very loud person,” says M1llionz. “I don’t really like attention. Which is a bit mad, obviously, cos I rap and that.”
The Birmingham drill rapper’s set this month at Wireless, the UK’s biggest rap festival, makes the suggestion seem far-fetched. Sharing a bill with US megastars and the chart-dominating UK new school, he plays the festival’s second stage just as last-minute announcement Giggs starts his set in the main arena. But M1llionz draws an adoring crowd, rowdy teenagers and twentysomethings shouting back every word to his anthemic single Lagga as a drizzly London evening turns to night.
Lagga came out last year with one of the most thrilling music videos in recent memory, filmed in Nairobi with a cast of locals waving machine guns and machetes in the air behind a bare-chested M1llionz. He’s rather more reserved in person, but is happy with the performance and not overawed by the occasion: “You need to entertain the audience, innit – you need to make sure you deliver.”
Ten days before Wireless we meet in the London offices of his record company as he prepares to release his debut mixtape, Provisional Licence. He wears all black – a nylon balaclava with a hole for his face, a long quilted parka and a sweatshirt with the word “immigrant” on the chest – and while he clearly doesn’t love interviews, he gives thoughtful, considered responses, often pausing before answering as though weighing up exactly how much to reveal.
“Everyone cattin’ man’s style, every day new yute with a M1llionz flow,” he rapped on 2020 track Billionz, his first Top 40 hit. When he started out, his wry, conversational cadence was unlike anything else in the scene; now, several rappers have been accused of copying it. He tells stories real and imagined from the chaotic environment he grew up in, rich with references to drugs and violence but also full of jokes. On recent single Badnis he eulogises Jamaican yardie culture, mentioning chicken shops and plainclothes police before delivering a typically impudent take on the gun-as-phallic-symbol trope. “Didn’t have no dad, mum told me pull it back when you cleaning the shaft,” he deadpans.
As an only child who had no relationship with his father, M1llionz, now 23, spent his childhood going to music studios with his Jamaican mum, herself a rapper and singer who records under the name Sic’Nis. He was expelled from school in his final year, but won’t say exactly what for. “Not even madness but … I got kicked out,” he says. A short while later he spent 18 months in prison on a drug charge – “a blip, a one-off thing”.
Drill’s disputed relationship with real-life crime has made it some of the most controversial music ever recorded in Britain, with politicians, tabloids and police castigating – and in some cases actively censoring – drill artists on the grounds that they encourage violence. “People that don’t understand that way of life are always gonna say that,” says M1llionz. “So they’re never gonna say: ‘Oh, it’s beautiful that he’s saying this.’ But really and truly, it is beautiful, because if you’re putting into words what you’ve seen and the impact that it’s had, and it’s taken you from wherever you was a couple years ago and now you’re on TV, doing charity work, all these things … I think they should focus on the positive and not the negative.”
On a recent trip to Ghana he and his team donated toys and food to a charity working with orphaned children. “I wanna do that everywhere,” he says. “Music brings jobs as well, and opportunities. So from me rapping, when I get to a certain stage, my friends can start rapping – well, they already have. Then my other friend can be a manager, my cousin can be a tour manager, my auntie could be a caterer, my girl could be a stylist …”
Provisional Licence, the work of a supremely skilled storyteller, may well increase his capacity for doing good. In sound – the beats, the revving bass – it’s drill, but M1llionz says he’s “not really a drill rapper like that”.
“My content’s not as hardcore – it’s not like gang-member drill. My one’s a bit more … enjoyable. It’s not just 12 songs mashed together. There’s meaning to it. From the intro to the last song, there’s a journey to it.” Its narrative follows the rapper as he makes some kind of ambiguous delivery and gets stopped by police while driving with a provisional licence. A true story? “Not necessarily, but …” he takes a long pause. “It is real. It’s a thing that could have happened, or has happened.”
Everything he does seems tactful and measured. “I’m very to myself,” he says. As a drill rapper, he’s almost a paradox: a Brummie in a world of Londoners, an introvert in a genre dominated by brashness and bravado. “If there’s people in a room, I won’t be in that corner, I’ll be in a different corner. That’s just me.”