It was more by accident than design that Wembley Stadium ended up hosting its first rap headliner. Eminem originally wanted to perform in Hyde Park but the Royal Parks refused. Too much bad language, according to a leaked memo. So it was off to the home of football instead, where bad language isn’t a problem.
The 90,000-capacity stadium presented a different challenge, however. Eminem’s support act, Californian shock-rappers Odd Future, illustrated it. Their classic set-up of four MCs and one DJ was dwarfed by the huge setting. The flow of words in the raps disappeared into the ether, in contrast to the thuggish chants that made up the choruses, which rang out like boom-bap terrace anthems.
Initially Eminem, playing the first of two shows at the stadium, seemed swallowed up by the scale too. Entering to the strains of “Bad Guy”, the first song from last year’s album The Marshall Mathers LP2, he was a tiny figure in bright white trainers gesticulating on a distant stage. The screens on either side of the stage were switched off, and the rapper’s verbal skills were hard to discern.
The screens came on for the second number, revealing Eminem to be wearing a Union Jack T-shirt. A giant boombox was projected on the screen behind him, its speakers bulging with each beat. In old-school style, Eminem played truncated versions of his songs with a hypeman-sidekick while the music sounded like a bigger version of the no-nonsense beat-making you might find in a basement rap club.
At 41, the Detroit rapper has moved away from his profane but complex persona of old, the potty-mouthed provocateur with substance abuse problems and a mother complex. These days he casts himself as the keeper of hip-hop’s flame. “Hip-hop ain’t dying on my watch,” he declares on The Marshall Mathers LP2.
The back-to-basics purism fitted awkwardly with Wembley’s monumental size. There were complaints afterwards about low sound levels – a contrast with the high ticket prices – although it was loud enough from where I was sitting at the back of the venue. But for much of the first half it lacked spectacle.
That changed with the arrival of an impressive guest star, Eminem’s mentor Dr Dre. Fresh from selling his Beats headphones business to Apple, rap’s self-declared first billionaire brushed off cobwebby performing skills to run through several of his own tracks, including “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” from 1992’s The Chronic.
The appearance lifted Eminem. The intensity levels went up a notch, the rapper spitting out rhymes with rapid-fire changes in tempo and manically dashing around the stage. The light show came into its own when darkness fell, accompanying old hits such as “My Name Is” and “The Real Slim Shady”, redone as big stadium-rap numbers with singalong chants. Wembley’s first rap headliner had battled his way to a draw.
Ludovic Hunter-Tilney was named Arts Reviewer of the Year at this year’s London Press Club awards