Anticipation ran high at the Forum. Octavian is the latest up-and-comer in the UK’s burgeoning hip-hop scene, winner of the BBC’s Sound of 2019 poll to find the most promising new names for the year ahead. He is the first rapper to win since 50 Cent in 2003.
The Londoner, otherwise known as Oliver Godji, 23, opens up a new space in this fast-moving branch of British music. Born in France to parents from Ivory Coast and Angola, he moved with his widowed mother to the UK as a child. During this show he repeatedly, almost obsessively, did shout-outs to London as his home, the place “where I feel most comfortable”.
Like the cosmopolitan city in which it has been forged, his music finds its bearing in a shifting set of sounds. You can hear different varieties of rap in there (grime, road rap, US trap) alongside the west African melodies and percussion that come under the umbrella term Afrobeats. James Blake’s introspective electronic ballads are an influence. So is the emotive sing-rapping with which Drake conducts his own more flamboyant version of introspection. The Canadian, a voracious talent-spotter, gave his seal of approval when he was filmed singing Octavian’s song “Party Here” at a Golden Globes after-party last year.
At the Forum, a large background screen showed computer-generated scenes cast in muted, pixelated colours — planets, underwater worlds, Blade Runner-style future cities. These murky fantasy landscapes chimed with the shadowy, dreamlike aspects of Octavian’s songs.
“Move Faster”, which is about re-animating oneself after a period of personal turbulence — the rapper had an episode of homelessness in his teens — combined slow singing and lilting melodies with faster rapping and sharp hi-hat beats. Songs with mellow tempos and melodic loops that spooled and unspooled like drifting trains of thought sat side by side with booming, cruder rap numbers during which the audience bounced up and down like frantically manipulated marionettes.
Octavian was alone on stage for most of the show, with the occasional guest vocalist joining him and a DJ semi-visible in the wings cueing beats. He commanded the stage well, singing software-processed verses with feeling and rapping emphatically in a deep, raspy voice. He handled his music’s mixture of tones well too, building towards an upfront, high-tempo finale with “Bet”, on which he was joined by grime MC Skepta, a foundational star of current UK hip-hop. The earlier mood of anticipation had been rewarded.
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