Women of the world, Pharrell Williams is sorry. He’s sorry for treating you badly in “Blurred Lines”, the notorious Robin Thicke hit in which he had a guest spot. To atone he has released an extravagantly pro-woman solo album, GIRL– the musical equivalent of a bouquet of flowers and a note saying “Please forgive me!”
At the Wireless festival in Finsbury Park, Williams surrounded himself with no fewer than nine female backing dancers and singers. In case anyone didn’t get the memo, he played GIRL’s “Marilyn Monroe” early in the set. “I put my arms around her and I promise not to abuse you,” he sang over smooth funk. The male punter walking through the audience filming dancing women didn’t heed the sentiment but at least Williams seemed to mean it: his charm has helped him to prosper post-”Blurred Lines”, unlike the hapless Thicke.
That said, his set was unimpressive. Interposing songs he has produced for other acts with his own hits such as “Happy”, he was a lacklustre live performer, unable to project himself to an audience of 45,000. “Blurred Lines” was briefly played, with the objectionable content left out. Meanwhile the best song came immediately before it – Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl”, performed by his backing troupe of singers and dancers, Williams melting into the background as though an observer at his own gig. That was taking the campaign for contrition too far.
And so to the evening’s headliner, Kanye West. Shall we start with the good or the bad? OK, the bad. During the ballad-cum-screed “Runaway”, the rapper embarked on a 15-minute rant, which can be summarised thus: I, Kanye, am a genius and anyone who disagrees is a brainwashed dupe of the racist media and fashion industries. “I’m just saying, don’t discriminate against me because I’m a black man or a celebrity!” he cried out, railing against the injustice of a world that has only allowed him to design a solitary range of Nike shoes. The boos that rang out suggested sympathy was in short supply.
That was the bad. But the good, typically of West, was very good indeed. Performing most of his set in a beaded mask that gave him a genuinely uncanny look, backed by an enormous obelisk on to which colour-saturated images of the performance were projected, he had the entire park jumping up and down from the moment he came on rapping a ferocious version of “Black Skinhead” from his latest album Yeezus.
Apart from the rant, the audience response was exceptional, the most animated I’ve seen at a large outdoor gig. West’s rapping was dynamic while the setlist was thoughtfully composed, Yeezus’s more abrasive moments ignored in favour of old hits such as “Jesus Walks” and “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”. He ended with “Blood on the Leaves”, a juggernaut of a track built around a haunting sample of Nina Simone singing “Strange Fruit” – superbly produced but insensitive in its subject matter, Simone’s anti-lynching message yoked to an appalling rap about groupies. The good and the bad are inseparable in Kanye West.
Ludovic Hunter-Tilney was named Arts Reviewer of the Year at this year’s London Press Club awards