Not many artists can boast gold-selling albums, multiple Top 10 hits - as well as the arguably greater honour of being grime godfather Wiley's favourite MC. But Devlin is no ordinary rapper. From his hungry teenage mixtape days to his time riding high in the charts with stars like Ed Sheeran and Katy B guesting on his albums, he has remained Dagenham's own street poet: an impassioned, virtuoso talent driven by the need to describe life as it is for underdogs and ordinary people. And after some time out of the game, Devlin's ready to restake his position in the scene. Devlin couldn't have made his raison d'être clearer last March, when he premiered his first new track in two years on MistaJam's 1Xtra show. "50 Grand" is a staccato, venomous broadside at the materialism that he sees as poisoning rap. "I think I'm gonna be sick - it seems like every MC about loves telling the poor that they're rich," he spits in disgust, before going on to invert the usual money-related boasts by bragging about his £20 weed, his £5 pint and his £10 cab. Sonically, it's also a marked contrast to the last time we'd heard him on his second album, 2013's cinematic, ambitious A Moving Picture: "50 Grand" is jagged and grimey, complete with one-take video shot around Devlin's local area - and his raw energy is reminiscent of his early days on pirate radio and classic grime cuts such as "Shot Gritty". It's fitting that Devlin is joined by Skepta, who in 2014 famously threw all his designer clothes in the bin on "That's Not Me" while spearheading the grime renaissance that's been the biggest and best story in British music over the past two years. With over 200,000 YouTube views to date, "50 Grand" became one of its biggest anthems of 2015. "50 Grand" was also one of the first tracks Devlin wrote after a self-imposed 18-month hiatus from the music industry. With two top 20 albums under his belt - Devlin's 2010 debut Bud, Sweat And Beers was certified gold - and top 20 hits such as "Runaway", "Watchtower" (with Ed Sheeran) and "Rewind", the rapper was riding high in 2013. But he felt burnt out both physically and creatively.
"I couldn't write - I had no inner peace, my head was all over the gaff," he explains now. "I'd been writing lyrics every day since I was 13, but when I started doubting myself it gave me the hump. The best thing for me was to step away for a minute. I wanted to take a look at what was going on, take some stuff in and just live some life."
Devlin isn't one to romanticise finding his time out - "I had a beer, chilled, was a bit of a fucker with my pals for two years, got it out of my system, got my head together, bosh, we're here" is how he describes the process. (He also landed his first film role in last year's Anti-Social, an experience he remembers as "scary, nerve-wracking and fun".) Neither was there a magic trigger to reignite his creative spark; rather, he happened to be living with producers Term and Rachet, old friends whom he'd known for over a decade, and ending up in their home studio felt inevitable. It's a situation that has led to Devlin's most direct and cohesive album yet: entirely produced by Term and Rachet, The Devil In is a masterpiece of back-to-basics energy as Devlin strips away everything extraneous from his music. It's also his first independent release since his mixtape days - and, though the parting of ways with Island Records was thoroughly amicable and Devlin insists that he was never pressured into making music he was uncomfortable with, the liberation from the need for radio choruses or mainstream collaborations has resulted in a thrilling showcase of his talent. In short, The Devil In is a showcase of all the reasons why Wiley described Devlin as "overlooked because he's so good" in a January interview.
Take the sinister "Castella Freestyle", on which Devlin goes hard and mercilessly at his foes - stacking rhymes on top of rhymes, shape-shifting from threat to threat, dropping references from the periodic table to the Annabelle horror movie doll. "When you write an album you think about concepts, tunes, touching people - but it was good to just fucking go in with wordplay," he grins. "The beat's nice and open - I used to say, gimme a Michael Myers horror movie beat so I feel like I can chase it down." Then there's "Jim McVeigh", Devlin's personal favourite on the album. That's as in Oklahoma bomber Tim McVeigh - so naturally he uses the alter ego to delve into some of his darkest imagery yet, a stark contrast to Maverick Sabre's lilting, bluesy hook. Devlin's been responsible for some of the most vivid poetry in grime since his early days, but the writing process is still slightly mysterious even to him. "Some lyrics, after you've spat them in your head for a couple of days you think ah, sweet - if I take a syllable out there I can add a breath there and go in a bit there - it's like a big puzzle. When you're flowing that fast, one word or syllable out can throw your flow off. Other times, it floods through me, it feels like I ain't even writing, when I'm in the zone it just feels like it's coming from somewhere else." More specific is the follow-up single to "50 Grand": "Bitches" twists some misogynist stereotypes to take aim at the gossipy, backstabbing men Devlin's encountered in his life. "No matter what you're doing in life, there's always someone that's not happy - everyone knows a pain in the arse whinging all the time," he laughs. "Women get called bitches a lot and spoken about in derogatory terms, so it was nice to flip it. Men can be bigger bitches than women." One of the key moments leading up to Devlin's return was his surprise appearance at Kano and Ghetts' Boiler Room set last April - one of the most intense and ferocious in the club's history. (It was a surprise to Devlin as well, who was in the pub and only got dragged out at the last minute.) The Devil In finds him recapturing that same pure, old-school grimey spirit - and easily slipping back into his position as the genre's renaissance continues to grow, aided in part by social media channels that allow artists to build strong fanbases while remaining independent. "When I first started out, I didn't even know what YouTube was - it had only just come about," he laughs. "Pirate radio was banging, social media was nothing. But now we've all lived and learned enough to do it on our ownm and it's good to see young people grasping that. It feels like when Jay Z, Eminem and Dre set up their own labels." For all Devlin's mainstream success, it's not a world whose approval he's ever sought - and that's even more true now. 2016 has already seen the BRIT Awards once again overlook the grime scene, but Devlin remains unbothered. "To be honest, I don't give a fuck - none of them people know what they're on about anyway," he shrugs. "Just a hall of people out of touch with reality and what we do, it doesn't bother me. The scene is thriving now. If people wanna show us love, they can show us love, or not. It ain't gonna stop us anyway."
Being on the outside suits Devlin, anyway. Born to a council worker mother and forklift driver father in Dagenham, the Essex borough that regularly shows up as one of the most deprived areas of England, he is a down-to-earth anti-diva who still lives there despite his success - showing up today fresh from breakfast in his local caff. "If it weren't for the people here that initially got behind me, I'd be nothing - why would I want to stray from that?" he asks. He's at his most animated when talking about the struggles and injustices facing his community: "It gets to me and boils my blood, and you hear that coming out in my tracks sometimes," he says of the poverty and inequality that's been rising under a Conservative government. Meanwhile, the self-described "angry young man" is also frank about the reasons underlying an increasing crisis of masculinity in this age of inequality: "People are looking at you and you're expected to have a partner, to have a flat, to drive a car - there's a lot of pressure. You think about adult subjects too young - I can't remember being a child." These themes also permeate The Devil In: "Cold Blooded", a collaboration with singer Tom Prior, is the deftly told story of a bullied kid growing up on the wrong side of town. Meanwhile, the thoughtful "Life" finds Devlin - accompanied by a yearning hook from Harry James - mulling over his purpose growing older in a "messed-up world". It's the kind of specific emotional situation that Devlin excels at: where other artists might paint it in broad brushstrokes, Devlin's honesty is raw and real. After his return last year, Jme tweeted in appreciation of him: "I believe him when he spits bars". Ultimately, this is what has always made Devlin special - and, rejuvenated and ready to go, it's even more true than ever in 2017.