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Jungle review: Rappers turned actors shine in drill music drama

Tinie Tempah, Unknown T, M24 and others swap the stage for the screen in this bracing new show

By
23 September 2022
T

hings get dark in Jungle, figuratively and literally. Violence, paranoia and anxiety seep into almost every scene, and in the first two episodes, its vision of a faintly dystopian, semi-futuristic London is one on which the sun never rises.

This six-part Amazon Prime Video series, which follows the interwoven stories of young men and women caught up in lives of crime, builds on the Top Boy formula and twists it in unexpected ways. That incredibly popular Netflix show was electrified by the talents of musicians-turned-actors, from Kano to Little Simz, and Jungle makes similar moves, dipping into various UK rap scenes to enlist the likes of Tinie Tempah, IAMDDB, and Unknown T for its cast.

But while Top Boy was executed with searing authenticity, Jungle loosens the grip on reality. Some scenes are painfully genuine — one early death is played out to its full, gory extent, and the grief felt afterwards is palpable — but things get meta within the first few moments, breaking the fourth wall with a film crew in shot. Later on, creators Junior Okoli and Chas Appeti add a touch of Macbeth as one character, riddled by guilt and likely PTSD, experiences hallucinations.

What’s more, occasionally the dialogue morphs into rap, with characters spitting bars over drill beats. It’s bracing — and pretty groundbreaking — to see the genre used in this way, but makes perfect sense: storytelling has always been an essential part of drill, as it was in grime and hip-hop before it.

The lyrics are often teeming with violence, threats and bravado — the type that so peturbs social commentators and police forces — but it’s always balanced with words of vulnerability and helplessness; these are characters of many shades, as much as the hyper-macho world within which they find themselves forces them to conceal it.

In the first two episodes made available for review, the action centres around Gogo (played with convincing versatility by Ezra Elliott), a young Londoner who, against his better judgement and despite the protestations of his pregnant partner Jessica, heads out to commit a burglary with Slim (the rapper RA, excellent at embodying his character’s growling unpredictability).

Things go awry, and Gogo finds himself on the wrong side of not only Slim, but various other nefarious characters. It’s in this knotted web that we come across the other musicians, each of whom feel like more than just cameos: Brixton rapper M24, real name Dorai Harrison, excels at welding trauma to fury as character 6IX, while Birmingham’s Jaykae, AKA Janum Khan, lends a disconcerting lightness to his gangster role.

It’ll be interesting to see how Jungle develops over the next few episodes, both in terms of plot and its narrative devices; as exciting as the drill sections are, sometimes their inclusion feels less warranted than at other points. And there are more famous faces yet to come. Welcome to the Jungle.

Amazon Prime, September 30

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