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There were times during this show when I thought Kate Tempest’s heart would burst. The performance poet-turned-rapper spoke fervently about how big a deal the event was for her – a sold-out night in east London’s hipsterland on her first headlining tour after 12 years of slog and craft at open mic nights and poetry slams. She declaimed her rhymes with the utmost intensity and conviction; she got whoops of support from the crowd when she testified indignantly: “You don’t have to look pretty or sing sexist lyrics to succeed as a woman on stage”; and she preached passionately about a world with too little empathy and too much greed, her voice cracking. Emotion is common currency in the world of pop, but it’s rare to see it so real, to hear a voice quivering, on the brink of tears, with such ardour.
Tempest, 28, who grew up in southeast London, credits her father for her work ethic and her English teacher for her love of language. But there’s clearly something deep within her that compels her to recite and rhyme and write; words flow from her in unstoppable torrents, like lava from a volcano. Now, with the addition of grooves and music, she can enhance the natural cadences of her rhymes with rhythms that flow and beats that stutter.
Here, then, with an electronic three-piece band and a backing vocalist, performing tracks from her debut album Everybody Down, Tempest started a little hesitantly but grew in confidence and grew into the music, began to feel its physicality, its scattering, rib-rattling whumps and clacks. Her lyrics tell stories of humdrum lives and low-lifes – the word “kitchen” seems to crop up frequently, not the usual stuff of hip-hop – and here she delivered them, sometimes half-singing, with fluency and dexterity, the second vocalist adding emphasis and drama.
Sometimes the music was overwhelmingly loud, and all the better for it: “The Heist” crescendoed in a blistering haze of noise and light. “Circles” meanwhile was easier on the ear, the crowd bobbing and rap-singing along. At the end, again blown away by the bigness of the night, she said: “This is a dream. This is a dream. This is a f***ing dream.” She really is quite something.