It opened with a church bell tolling as though in a spaghetti Western stand-off. Then a chainsaw guitar riff struck up, underscored by a heavy drumbeat. The main attraction, entering centre stage in the bouncer’s uniform of black bomber jacket and baseball cap, began spitting verses at a rapid pace.
The 5,000-capacity Brixton Academy was sold out for Kano’s show. The east Londoner, real name Kane Robinson, is a veteran of the city’s grime scene, the UK’s version of rap. “They say grime’s not popping like it was back then,” he declared in his first number, “Hail”. But the golden-age nostalgia was misplaced.
Grime is currently enjoying its greatest ever visibility, a stride forward sealed by Skepta’s victory last month in the Mercury Prize for the year’s best UK album. Kano was also nominated for his fifth album, Made in the Manor.
Acceptance raises a new challenge for a scene that prides itself on punk-style self-reliance and rebellion. “Middle finger to mass-appealers,” Kano rapped in his second song, “New Banger”, a grimier-than-thou assault of rave claxons and beats. Skepta’s brother JME joined him for the next track, “Flow of the Year”. The atmosphere was electric — yet the show was not as purist as these first numbers suggested.
In a departure from the norm, a live band backed the rapper, not just a DJ. A pianist, drummer, guitarist and keyboardist occupied podiums behind Kano. A sousaphone player and a trombonist occasionally joined him on stage, adding a classic-soul bustle to “This Is England” and bringing a brassy emphasis to “Boys Love Girls”, a bouncily ribald number from his first album, 2005’s Home Sweet Home.
A series of reflective songs tried to move beyond grime. Damon Albarn, with whose Gorillaz project Kano has collaborated in the past, had a guest spot playing piano and singing backing vocals on “Deep Blues”, a depressed look at life’s ills. “A Roadman’s Hymn” opened with the sound of police sirens but concluded with a gospel-influenced plea for forgiveness.
The pace flagged; a maundering tone entered Kano’s voice. Only with a return to a more dynamic tempo was the electric atmosphere of earlier restored. Here was testament to grime’s success, but also to the challenges it faces moving to the next level.