The baby of the grime scene, Devlin, 21, from Essex, is a breath of fresh air on the British hip-hop scene. He's notorious for having the best vocabulary in grime, which he delivers sharply on his socially aware debut album, Bud, Sweat & Beers, which came out last week to critical acclaim.
His rapid-fire lyrics have a feverish quality – and he releases an outpouring of imagery about a nation let down by its government, and questions what damage we are doing to the planet from a spiritual perspective.
He draws on his working-class white background in Dagenham and transforms it into the urban realism of a poet.
"I try and put my heart into my lyrics. I touch on a subject that means something to me or that I see going on around me," says Devlin. "I'm talking about real subjects and keeping the music real. There is good and bad in the world. I just think the people who run the world should look after vulnerable people."
I meet Devlin in Hackney on the video shoot for his next single, "Let It Go". He has the chiseled good looks of a Burberry model and a skinny body, and shakes my hand after removing his T-shirt in between filming scenes. "Alright love," he says. "Sorry about the delay." And he whizzes off with the single-mindedness of somebody who does things fast. Now signed to Island records, Devlin has been heralded as the saviour of British hip-hop. He has also reworked Paul Weller's song "Fast Car/Slow Traffic", rapping over the original rock track at Weller's request, and is set to perform with him on his UK tour later this month.
Although Devlin looks like he should have a part in Only Fools and Horses or in a Shane Meadows film, the truth is that he doesn't take to acting naturally. So it's hard work for Devlin, who has to sit on the edge of a bed, looking straight into the camera, rapping about leaving his girlfriend in "Let It Go".
This is his first romantic song to date, but although it's more poppy than the edgier songs on his album, it still hits a nerve, as he is torn between feelings of wanting to "kiss you or strangle you". It features hip-hop producer du jour Labrinth, who scored a No 1 hit, "Frisky", with Tinie Tempah, and who is pottering around the film set.
As filming stops for lunch, Devlin sits down at a table with a plate of hot food. "I'm a corner cutter – but not with the music," he tells me. "This hasn't happened overnight. I've been writing lyrics for a good eight years. I was writing lyrics in my bedroom at 13. I've had to learn my craft like a builder does. I feel comfortable now. I just enjoy what I'm doing."
Devlin (first name James) is intense and admits he has a hell of a lot on his mind. "I found writing songs and getting it out helped me to get a good night's sleep," he tells me. But despite what some may consider a hardened exterior, flashes of sensitivity cross his face. "I used to be shy. I suppose that's why I say so much in the music because I don't say much in real life."
Devlin grew up on a housing estate in Dagenham with his council worker mum, currently out of work forklift driver dad and younger brother. There wasn't a lot to do in Dagenham, so he became obsessed with playing football at the age of 6, making it into Senrab FC, the youth team where John Terry started out. "I've always had a lot of energy. I loved football."
By the age of 13, Devlin had started rapping – just as the UK garage scene exploded. Perfecting his craft in open mic sessions and at raves, he soon started to blow the older MCs out of the water. "I loved English at school – anything to do with wordplay, poetry, metaphors – but I don't read as much as I should."
He caught the attention of The OT Crew's Dogzilla, aka Dogzy, who got him on OT member Shotz's Rinse FM show, giving him a platform to rap twice a week . "He took my number and called me back. I didn't think he was going to." By 15 Devlin had joined the OT Crew, Dagenham's grime collective, which he describes as his "family". "They looked after me. Made sure I stayed on the right track." In 2006 he joined the cross-crew collective The Movement, which also featured Ghetto and Scorcher. The same year he released his first mix-tape CD, Tales from the Crypt, on OT Recordings, Dogzilla's label. It included the song "Community Outcast", a paean to the people society has forgotten: the jobless, homeless, single mums, isolated elderly and children, which consolidated his fame on the underground grime scene. This was followed with his second release, "The Art of Rolling", but mainstream success was still out of reach.
At 19 he worked shifting boxes in a factory, but a dead-end job was too grim to bear. "I didn't want to be working in a factory for the rest of my life on crap money, so I tried to better my life." He told his parents he couldn't stick it anymore and decided to make a go of music. Luckily, with a bit of determination, his decision paid off. He made the BBC Sound of 2010 longlist and his next smash hit, "London City", celebrating good times in the capital, spent ten weeks at No 1 on digital TV channel Channel AKA's chart. After garnering more than 2.5 million views on YouTube, he was soon signed to Island Records. "My parents are a bit shocked. I don't think they ever saw this outcome. I told them there was a possibility I could really do something with this, but I don't think they saw the chances I had. My mum wanted me to go to work – but they are proud of me because I turned this around. I've been coming up the ranks, and I'm getting somewhere."
Songs on his new album include "1989", which charts his early life, as well as the melancholic "Our Father", written from the perspective of God looking down on mankind's mistakes. His first single, "Brainwashed", released in August, had him spelling out his name "Devlin" as if he were brainwashing your mind. September's Top 20 hit, "Runaway", about escaping meaningless everyday routine, features uplifting vocals from DJ Yasmin.
It was Weller who reached out to him and asked him to rework the track "Fast Car/Slow Traffic". "He sent it over and said, 'see what you can do with it'. I tried my best and he seemed to love it. I take it as such a compliment for him to ask me. That's massive for me. I'm a fan of the man, anyway."
Although he has already been on the cover of RWD magazine, grime's NME, becoming a star on the underground scene with "Community Outcast" in 2006, this is Devlin's first ever newspaper interview. While comparisons to Mike Skinner are inevitable, it's too easy a one for Devlin, whose music is darker and more edgy. "Over the last seven years, this is where I've wanted to be. I'm doing everything I ever dreamed of now. I'm content with my life," he says. "I try to expect nothing and just work hard. I never say aim low, but that's my mentality. If I work as hard as I can and never expect anything, I can't be let down, but the way that everybody else has got behind me is amazing over the last year. I feel a lot of love. I'm happy with the way it's going. He adds: "But I am very competitive. I don't see the point in playing if you're not playing to win."
'Bud Sweat and Beers' is out now
As good as his words: Devlin's lyrics
Community Outcast “I represent for the jobless, that have been made redundant, that have got four kids and don’t know how to fund them.Ever since the wife and the husband lost their jobs in the office in London, Now they feel financially trapped, Now they’re locked with the rats in a dingy old dungeon. Take this young father of two, Signing on and the government says that his family are spongers”
Our Father “Careless tsunamis caused by tectonic plates, changing shape in the oceans base, releasing explosive rage, I’m just sat here in my burgundy robe observing the globe, pondering if the life that I created will ever learn to evolve. I filled your oceans full of fishand I put birds in your sky, and everyday you say in your personal lives, you ain’t worshipping I, how did you manage to ruin such abeautiful planet?”
End of Days “If you want to look in the eyes of a poet, peer through mine in this fearful time, where wages are cut but tax keeps growing, when the globe collapses on its axis, watch men, women and children with axes, fighting for food ‘cos they’re dwelling where the rats live”Reuse content