“Big up for all the mothers out there!” Tinie Tempah shouted from the O2 Arena’s stage. The sentiment would have meant something quite different from an American rapper, but the man from the London suburb of Plumstead meant it literally. It was Mother’s Day. Somewhere among us his mum clapped along. She got a shout-out too.
Tinie is a big name in UK rap. However, he is dwarfed by the US stars who regularly descend on the O2 with their oversized, oversexed, over-here arena shows. He first played the 20,000-capacity venue in 2011, the year he won two Brit awards and his debut album went multi-platinum, but here he was three years later still describing it as a place where you’d expect to see “major American artists”, not little old him. Sections of unsold seating in the upper tier reinforced the self-deprecation.
He fronted up to the gig by throwing everything at it. A fusillade of drumbeats and wildly flashing lights erupted as he appeared on a platform above his band in a silver suit. The opening suite of songs included budget-bling comparisons to David Hasselhoff (“In my vintage eBay watch, that’s why I feel like the Hoff”) and a number called “Frisky” with a manic “Oh la la la la, la la la la” refrain to which all present waved their arms from side to side like crops in a gale. As the pop-dubstep clamour of “Earthquake” rang out it was a surprise not to see Tinie catapult over our heads in a giant kitchen sink.
There was a procession of guests. Four fellow MCs joined him for “100K” while soul singer Laura Mvula reprised her role singing the aspirational hook for “Heroes”. Tempah rapped well, his voice mixing the lithe bounce of US southern hip-hop with the fast flow of the London grime scene from which he emerged. But attempts to adopt US rap lingo either fell flat, as with the witless chants of “German Whip”, or were ironised, such as “RIP”’s address to a “sexy señorita”: “I’ll make you call me daddy, even though you ain’t my daughter.”
He spoke of wanting to make the songs from his second album Demonstration “bigger and deeper”. Cue a dully chugging break-up anthem with a wailing guitar solo, neither big nor deep. Tempah’s eagerness to please gives him an exuberance lacking in self-important US rap. But it’s also an obstacle to his progression.