One of the fastest-rising stars of UK rap, Central Cee has won fifth place in BBC Radio 1's Sound Of 2022.
Hailing from west London, his melodic take on drill has already earned him two Mobo Awards, and he's nominated for three Brits – including best newcomer – in February.
He burst on to the scene in 2020 with the straight-talking Day In The Life, in which he taunted his peers: "Turn off the auto-tune, let's hear how you really rap."
Freestyled while driving his car, the track was the culmination of 15 years of hard work. Born Oakley Caesar-Su in London's Shepherd's Bush in 1998, he's been cultivating his lyrical style since writing his first verse at the age of eight.
"I recorded my first song when I was 13 – recorded and released it," he told the BBC.
"I'm 22 now, so it's coming up to 10 years. But I wasn't really in the game. I was still in school, balancing things and just going through life. It was only literally last year, 2020, where I got to take this stuff serious."
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Day In The Life and its follow-ups, Molly and Loading, framed him as a playful, mischievous character, eschewing the austere beats of drill for a more colourful sound – full of jazz samples and witty wordplay.
Amassing tens of millions of streams, the music quickly attracted the attention of record companies – but the rapper knocked them all back.
"Take that risk and go independent," he explained on the 2021 single Pinging. "I just turned down six figures."
The risk paid off, though. February's Commitment Issues secured Cee a number nine spot on the UK chart, and his first mixtape, Wild West, debuted at number two in March.
He celebrated the release by riding on horseback through Shepherd's Bush Market, and installing a giant mural on the nearby Goldhawk Road.
When Cee turned up to have his photo taken in front of it, "50 to 60 school kids turned up after, like, five minutes," he recalls.
"There's a lot of love, man."
He ended the year with a guest verse on Ed Sheeran's Bad Habits remix, and another top 10 single, Obsessed With You – a street love song that samples fellow Sound Of 2022 nominee PinkPantheress.
Central Cee is the first act to be announced for the BBC's Sound Of 2022, which aims to predict the biggest new stars of the coming year.
The rest of the top five will be revealed daily on BBC Radio 1 and BBC News. Now in its 20th year, previous winners of the prize include Adele, Celeste, Haim, Sam Smith and Ellie Goulding.
Hey there – how has your 2021 been?
It's been an eventful one, to say the least!
You sold out the Shepherd's Bush Empire in October. Did you ever walk past it as a kid and think, "I'll play there one day"?
Every time I passed Shepherd's Bush Empire – which was two to three times a day for 10 to 15 years, I would look at it and I would just look and see who was on the bill, taking it in subconsciously. We could have sold a lot more tickets than that – but it was a conscious decision to make sure I did that one. It's important to me that I did that venue no matter how many tickets I could sell.
At the Mobos, you said you weren't sure how you felt about winning awards. Has your opinion changed now it's had time to sink in?
I still feel the same way but if I could reiterate it, what I meant is that I don't think people should feel like they need award shows to make them feel validated. We're all winners if we're in that room or releasing music, regardless of who gets the actual award.
When you started making music, you'd record with just a MacBook and a pair of iPhone headphones. How did you teach yourself those skills?
I'm just quite observant, I'd say. So when I've downloaded the software I kinda just messed around with it. I didn't even watch no tutorials or nothing. Because I've been in the studio so many times, when I'm in the sessions I'm just watching what they do. I'm a fast learner – it was pretty straightforward.
Where did the names Cench and Central Cee come from?
Central Cee just came. There's no interesting story behind it. And then Cench is just short for Central.
Loading became your first chart hit in the middle of the pandemic. What was it like to see your numbers soaring while you were stuck at home?
It was strange. I couldn't get out there and interact with the fans, or perform, so I felt quite detached – just looking and experiencing everything through my phone, being at home.
Do you feel it had to happen that way?
Timing is everything. It's God's timing. It had to happen that way.
You recorded Six For Six the same day that Loading hit the charts. How significant is that line, "this ain't no coincidence"?
It's just the truth.
Was there ever a time when you thought it might not happen?
Yeah – a couple times but I've been doing it for many years. For around 10 years. Within those 10 years there's obviously been bumps in the road and whatever but I was determined for the most part.
A lot of your songs feel rooted in real situations… What's your writing technique?
My writing technique has changed since Day in A Life. Day In A Life, I wrote outside of the studio and them times, studio time wasn't as accessible. I was selective with it. The money was obviously coming out of my pocket – and it still is – but studio wasn't on tap the same way. So them times I'd write outside the studio and just go and record and then cut. Since Day In A Life I haven't written a song outside of the studio. I just write in the studio basically.
The Wild West mixtape doesn't have any collaborations or features. Was that important to you?
It wasn't really premeditated, as such. By the time I had all the songs laid out, they just happened to be all on my own.
I haven't linked up to much people yet. I'm only just coming into the industry. I'm not in a rush to jump in the studio and work with everyone and this and that.
Commitment Issues and Obsessed With You are more emotional than a lot of UK rap. You could almost call them love songs. How important is it not to be boxed in by convention?
I don't try to not be boxed in by convention. It's not something I think about, but I have different emotions. I'm just a human being. So sometimes I might feel a bit more emotional or a bit more "whatever".
Obsessed With You samples another Sound Of 2022 nominee, PinkPantheress… What do you think makes her special?
There's a whole list of things, which would take ages to run through, but she's one of my favourite artists though – no cap. I love everything about her.
That song is the first track from your 23 mixtape. What can we expect when that comes out next year?
Expect big things. If you thought 'Wild West' was hard…
And finally, what's your grand plan for 2022?
Stay alive and get richer!
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