"It's loud and chaotic, full of character(s), buzzing with energy, a bit sketchy, hilarious, and thrillingly alive." Kneecap's debut album Fine Art is an absolute riot

The debut album from Belfast's Kneecap is an exhilarating, euphoric Album Of The Year contender

Kneecap - Fine Art
(Image: © Justin Bettman/Getty Images | Heavenly)

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Ireland, the world's media has decided, is having an extended 'moment', in cultural terms. Last August, Elle pronounced summer 2023 'Officially Hot Irish Guy Summer', and since then, in every area of the arts, citizens of the 32 Counties are enjoying almost unparalleled critical acclaim, with Cork's Cillian Murphy picking up the Best Actor Oscar for Oppenheimer, Limerick's Paul Lynch awarded the Booker Prize for his novel Prophet Song, and musical artists, from folk collective Lankum to post-punks Sprints to singer/songwriter CMAT, receiving rave reviews for their recent albums and live performances.

“I would say Irish culture is killing it at the moment because we are all a bit traumatised,” CMAT told NME last month. “It’s really bred into our culture that being creative, being funny, and and making the best of a bad situation is the key to survival.”

Nowhere is this attitude better embodied and encapsulated than on Fine Art, the superb debut album from Belfast rappers Kneecap.

Over the past 12 months, the trio - Mo Chara (Liam Óg Ó Hannaidh), Móglaí Bap (Naoise Ó Cairealláin) and DJ Próvaí (JJ Ó Dochartaigh) - have made headlines for a variety of reasons. There was their decision to sue the UK government after Secretary of State for Business and Trade Kemi Badenoch personally intervened to block funding awarded to the group for US touring. There was their boycott of the South By SouthWest music festival to highlight “the unacceptable deep links the festival has to weapons companies and the U.S. military who at this very moment are enabling a genocide and famine against a trapped population”, a bold move swiftly followed by every other Irish band also withdrawing their participation in solidarity with the Palestinian people. And then there was their triumphant appearance at the Sundance Film Festival, where their semi-fictionalised self-titled biopic, the first Irish language film ever to premiere at the event, won the festival's Audience Award.

Now, with the imminent release of Fine Art, global attention will finally pivot fully to the trio's music. And, once again, Kneecap have absolutely nailed it, for the multi-faceted, bi-lingual Fine Art is one of the smartest, funniest, most euphoric and imaginative debut albums released by any Irish band, ever. 

Conceptually, Fine Art is set in a fictional West Belfast bar, The Rutz, an inventive creative conceit which gives the trio license to go almost anywhere in terms of tone, textures and topics. Like any bar worth visiting on a night 'out out', it's loud and chaotic, full of character(s), buzzing with energy, a bit sketchy, hilarious, and thrillingly alive. Pints are poured, Class A drugs are scored, and things, naturally, get very messy indeed, meaning that the comedown, when it arrives, will hurt... eased somewhat by the sure and certain knowledge that you'll be back in The Rutz having another big one soon enough.

The album begins in a deceptively low-key manner, with Irish traditional music in the background, and Lankum's Radie Peat singing in Gaeilge, but given that the opening song's title is 3CAG ('Trí chonsan agus guta' translating as three consonants and a vowel, code for MDMA) you know that the night is soon going to kick into a higher gear, pun intended. And so it proves with the punchy, exhilarating Fine Art, the band taking a sneering insult from rent-a-gob radio broadcaster Stephen Nolan and brilliantly turning into a badge of pride, stating that while their music, art and attitudes may not be to everyone's taste, it's valid, real and honest and - shrug - get ta fuck if you don't get it.

This manifesto clearly laid out, Kneecap embark on a joyously uninhibited joyride through musical genres, careering from electronic punk (I'm Flush) to '90s garage (Love Making, featuring vocals from Móglaí Bap's girlfriend Niamh Hinchy), from scuzzy indie rock (Better Way To Live, guest vocals by Fontaines D.C.'s Grian Chatten) to '90s rave (Parful, featuring dialogue lifted from Dancing on Narrow Ground: Youth & Dance in UIster, a never-broadcast TV documentary about dance-loving Catholic and Protestant youth in the North of Ireland). Lines are audibly racked out and snorted, jokes and insults are traded, interlopers are dismissed, and our hyper heroes bounce around the bar brightening up everyone's evening with their rí rá agus ruaille buaille.

The night reaches a climax with the moody-then-manic Rhino Ket ("Holy fuck, that shit is lethal... Fuck me, I'm only getting my eyesight back now... Jesus Christ, that was enough to kill a small fucking village"), with a hilariously pounding, terrace-chant chorus which runs "I'm K-holed off my head, this shit puts rhinos to bed!" before last orders are called. The comedown is ushered in by closing track Way Too Much, but the key message here is that no-one will be left behind, no-one made to suffer alone, as metaphorical hugs are doled out, comforting arms are thrown around shoulders, and a reassuring "Chin up brother, it's grand" is offered. The idea of love and friendship conquering all might be a cliché, but that doesn't make it any less valued in the hours of darkness we all experience.

Fine Art will emerge on June 14 just shy of six years on from the release of Kneecap's first mixtape, 3CAG. In cultural terms, that's a lifetime ago, but where the planet-pausing Covid pandemic stalled so many artist's momentum, the trio, together with film-maker Rich Peppiattto, spent that down-time writing and refining the script for their band biopic, Kneecap, coming to cinemas worldwide this summer, and an utterly essential companion piece to Fine Art. That's the best film you'll see in 2024, and this is the best album you'll hear all year.

Kneecap: their day has come.

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.