Top Boy, season 3 review, Netflix: Return to the mean streets, courtesy of Drake, still has pace, bite and atmosphere six years on

Top Boy
Netflix
★★★★

A celebrity fan brings a bit of kudos to any television programme. But Canadian rapper Drake’s love for the east London drug-dealing drama Top Boy is almost single-handedly responsible for its return after a six-year gap.

He’s an executive producer for this third series, now on Netflix, and has managed to persuade several members of the original team back – including writer Ronan Bennett and Ashley Walters, whose charismatic dealer Dushane grew from a subsidiary character to series lead in its original Channel 4 incarnation.

As the series opened, he was in exile in Jamaica attempting to go straight. But the temptation for “easy money” proved too strong and a botched robbery landed him in debt to a seriously scary Kingston crime kingpin. He offered to pay off the favour by returning to London and opening up a market for Jamaican drugs in his old stomping ground. But he faced competition from his long-time friend/partner/rival Sully (Kane Robinson), recently released from prison and a new kid on the block, Jamie (Micheal Ward), who is just as ruthless as the veterans.

Jamie (Micheal Ward) is the new kid on the block – and just as ruthless as the veterans (Photo: Chris Harris/Netflix)

The series has attracted criticism (as did the original) for glamorising drug dealing and stereotyping black Britons, with comedian and writer London Hughes making the fair point that it is possible to grow up black in London without joining a gang or witnessing a shooting.

But on the evidence of the first two episodes, the spurious glamour of the “player” lifestyle is depicted as just that – spurious. Dushane may think he’s in control but, like his fellow dealers, he’s simply perpetuating a grim cycle which only serves to make the bigger fish richer.

The attention to detail, sense of desperation and constant danger which marked the original out were still very much in evidence. But it’s been updated with some wry nods to Hackney’s gentrification – Dushane is baffled by a hipster barista the first time he tries to order a coffee, while Jamie’s suppliers are well-heeled but amoral white incomers.

Little Simz as Shelley was one of several impressive new additions to the ensemble (Photo: Chris Harris/Netflix)

And other plot strands – Jamie’s determination to keep his younger brothers in education and away from the route he’s taken; a hard-working mum on the estate becoming a casualty of the Windrush scandal – were a reminder that, while nobody is born a criminal and there is always a way out, social deprivation and government indifference don’t make it easy to be a saint in the city.

There was a bit too much going on, and an overly extensive cast was introduced in the first two episodes, but it’s got eight more to develop what look to be compelling storylines. The new additions to the ensemble – especially the rappers Dave, as Sully’s prison adversary Mobie, and Little Simz as Shelley, the carer who looks after Dushane’s mum –  are as impressive as the familiar faces. And neither the passage of time nor a change of channel have dulled its pace and bite.

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Sorry Drake, bringing back Top Boy is a step back for black British culture

I want to start by saying that I bloody love Drake, I enjoy his music, his eyebrows weirdly do it for me and he’s the only celebrity ever to apologise to me after accidentally stepping on my foot. You’d be surprised at the number who don’t – I’m looking at you, Kanye West, and you, Judge Rinder.

Aubrey Drake Graham has championed black British music from day one, sampling our funky house songs, shouting out our UK Garage artists, collaborating with our grime stars. He’s even used our slang, bless him. And I’m all for it. I’m so proud of black British music, and everything Drake has done to bring it to the forefront of popular culture is epic. To quote Kris Jenner: Drake, you’re doing amazing sweetie… But bringing back Top Boy? The gangs, guns and drug-ridden black drama that Channel 4 cancelled six years ago? Why Drake, why?

To understand my view, maybe you should learn a bit about me, first, so you can gain a bit of perspective and I can humblebrag a bit.

My name is London Hughes, I’m 30, I’m a hilarious black female comic from Thornton Heath, Croydon (the birthplace of Stormzy and south London’s first 24-hour Tesco). I’ve been working in British TV and entertainment for almost a decade now and I recently became the first black British woman ever to be nominated for the Edinburgh Comedy award, so let’s just say, I’m used to taking up space in white places.

Drake at the Top Boy premiere
Drake is the executive producer on Top Boy series three (Photo: Netflix)

On television, I have often played the role of the token black person, making me a spokesperson for all things black culture for white people who have no black friends or who haven’t bothered to do their research.

When Top Boy arrived on Channel 4 in 2011, written and created by the Northern Irish screenwriter Ronan Bennett (a white man, lol), the same thing happened: British people thought that here was black culture. I couldn’t blame them: what other shows were depicting Black Britain on TV at the time? The extent of black British culture seemed to be one black family on Eastenders.

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The television industry jumped on Top Boy – the show was gritty, edgy, critically acclaimed and constantly came up in meetings I found myself in. I forever had to explain to white people that, no I had never been in a gang (that’s a lie, I was in a library gang: we used to sit and read books at speed because we were very, very cool), yes I was from South London, but no I’d never heard a gunshot in real life.

The depiction of black people on British TV over the years has not only been sparse, but terribly one-sided. Black men have been portrayed as thugs, while black boys made delightful cameos on popular shows such as Crimewatch and the News at 10. By the time Top Boy arrived, that was the version of Black Britain that stuck.

Off the back of Top Boy’s success came shows such as BBC Three’s true crime dramas, “My Murder” (2012) and 2014’s “Murdered by my Boyfriend”. (Fun fact – there are no BBC Three dramas about black people which don’t have the word “Murder” in the title). As important and gripping as these stories are, they shouldn’t be the only ones being told. For every Top Boy, there should be at least one “Keisha goes to Uni”.

The narrative is slowly starting to shift, however. In 2016, BBC1 aired the six-part drama Undercover, which starred Britain’s first upper middle-class black family in which Sophie Okonedo played a barrister. This year, Dark Money told the story of a working-class black family, but with no gangs and no knife crime. Last year, there was even Sky One’s Bulletproof with Noel Clarke and Ashley Walters (who also stars in Top Boy), playing two black policemen.

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We’re finally starting to see black actors playing people and not just stereotypes. We’re finally shifting the narrative and offering more to the mainstream than the downsides of black Britain and gang culture. We’re finally starting to see different parts of black culture being celebrated, different black voices being heard. Black talents are finally being allowed to create their own stories, in their own words. And then Drake comes along and says, ‘Let’s take Top Boy and put it on the world stage! Let’s introduce Black Britain to the world this way! Here you are, Netflix!’

I’m currently in the process of making my own scripted comedy show in America, and I cannot wait to explain to them, too, that yes, I am black, yes I am from South London, but no, I have never been in a gang, nor heard a gunshot in real life.

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Drake the TV producer: How the rapper went from winning Grammys to reviving Top Boy for Netflix

Drake is a rapper. Not just any rapper, a rapper whose album Scorpion was streamed over a billion times in just one week and who has the most charted songs of any solo artist in Billboard history. He’s a rapper with five studio albums, three compilation albums and six mixtapes. He’s won four Grammys and two Brits. As a Canadian, he’s almost as big an export as maple syrup. So why was he on stage at an east London cinema last week, introducing a new series of Channel 4’s long dead drug-dealing drama, Top Boy?

“I want to thank you all so much for allowing me to be a part of this,” Drake told the audience at Hackney Picturehouse, where the premiere for the third season was held. “I just hope it’s half as captivating as Love Island and we’ll be on our way.” He is executive producer on the drama and is credited with being the catalyst for the show’s revival after he posted a screenshot from the first series on Instagram back in 2014.

Given Drake’s appreciation for British rap (J Hus, Skepta and Giggs are just a few of the MCs who have joined the Canadian on stage), his involvement in Top Boy’s revival isn’t that surprising; the leads are Kano (Kane Robinson) and former member of So Solid Crew Asher D (Ashley Walters). What is impressive, however, is just how committed he was to getting it off the ground. Speaking on Lauren Laverne’s Radio 6 Music show, Walters said: “I thought he watched it on Netflix, but he told me he actually watched it on YouTube. He was literally having to find part one, part two to piece it together – his dedication is real.

“He got in contact with me after he’d seen it and was asking when the next season was coming out and I said, ‘it’s not happening, it’s been cancelled’. He said, ‘We’ll see about that’.” A new 10-minute documentary charting Top Boy’s legacy reiterates the rapper’s dedication: it was Drake who did the bulk of the pitch to Netflix, where the show now lives; he went to the first table-read; he tells the cast they’ll all be back together when they’re “winning awards.” For Drake, this is so much more than a financial investment.

Most people will have either willingly or unwittingly heard a Drake song, but perhaps not many will realise that the young Aubrey Drake Graham started his career on TV. Starting as all child stars do – with adverts – he was eventually signed up to the teen drama, Degrassi: The Next Generation and his character, Jimmy Brooks quickly became a show favourite.

Following his exit in 2009, Drake scored minor roles in The Border and romance dramas Sophie and Being Erica, before making music his full-time job. That’s not to say he wasn’t still reaping the benefits of his on screen time: in 2017 he posted a royalty cheque from the Degrassi production team for the grand total of $8.25 (£6.70) on Instagram.

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Degrassi money still coming in don't sleeeeeeeep…💰💸💵💴💴💶💷

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In 2017 the Hotline Bling star dipped his toe back into the world of TV but in a more behind-the-scenes role. He was executive producer on The Carter Effect, a documentary about the NBA star, Vince Carter, whom he credits with inspiring him to try his hand at something new: “It just let me know that it was possible. It was confidence. It was the realisation that it was attainable.”

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In the same year, Drake announced that he was working on various projects with Steve Golin (The Revenant, Spotlight), film studio A24 and – to seal a hattrick of television deals – Apple, who are due to release their own streaming service later this year. “My taste in television or movies is always kind of similar to my approach to music, which is, I like when people really hit the nail on the head with real human emotions,” he told The Hollywood Reporter.

Drake’s next move was as executive producer on HBO’s Euphoria, a controversial and often explicit drama series about American teenagers. With naked penises and scenes of drug-taking from the off, the show has been praised for its complex characters and sensitive handling of often difficult subjects. Drake lauded the show as “one of the most remarkable creations I have ever been a part of.”

Drake is committed to hyping up “authentic” drama from across the world – and with the power he has to step in and save a production he deems worthy of continuing such as Top Boy, it seems there is no stopping his growing TV presence. Next, he’s set to executive produce Ready For War, a documentary about immigrants to America who serve in the military, then are deported from the country once their duty is over.

Just three projects in to his producing career, it already looks like Drake has the golden touch. If you thought he’d peaked with his musical output, just wait – the Drake era of TV is upon us.

Top Boy series three will be available to stream on Netflix from 13 September.

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