Sunday, December 21, 2014
Kate Tempest: Everybody Down (2014)
"Hip-hop was real to me. It was alive. It didn’t feel like I was appropriating a culture from America. The only thing that was weird was being a girl, I suppose, but I’ve kind of made my peace with that.”
Kate Tempest, who turns 29 tomorrow, is a poet, rapper and playwright who doesn't care much for being broken down in that manner. For our purposes, then, she is a rapper from South London and, as far as that goes, one of the best MCs to surface in the last ten years. Her first proper album is an explosive narrative about three young lives intertwining in the same chaotic London she's always known, the gutter flirting with the posh and vice versa, strife and hopelessness a way of life, ways out a mythical thing. A high school dropout whose written work is already being studied in some UK schools for its interpolation of mythology (shades of John Darnielle), she always really wanted to be a rapper. Her inspirations were the MCs whose work wove elaborate narratives into monstrous, hook-filled records: Slick Rick, Dana Dane, Kendrick Lamar, Wu-Tang Clan. Knowing those records intimately, taking their lessons to heart and building a body of work on her own compassionate drive to explore other people's lives, she performs with passion and dedication that can leave you thoroughly breathless. That's before you even notice how astoundingly fucking smart her lyrics are.
This needs to be emphasized before we go much further. If you pay no attention whatsoever to the lyrics of Everybody Down, which is an intricately structured concept album, it still sounds immediately like something destined to become a landmark. Tempest's delivery is nuanced, witty, fast and emotionally wrenching but it's also beat and groove-driven like the best of her influences. She and producer Dan Carey, typically associated with indie rock that gives no clue as to the genius he displays and participates in here, designed the album with this in mind and thus avoid one of the pratfalls of concept records since the dawn of time: the "story" never overwhelms the music, and the results are songs first, episodes second. Even good kid, m.A.A.d city, the deserved tentpole of modern LPs in this domain, didn't achieve this so beautifully. Every time Tempest's wordy, busy lyrics start to get complicated, she and Carey swoop in with a killer, body-shaking chorus to drum up asses on the dance floor. Several songs, perhaps even most, on the record are so phenomenally crafted and pleasurable as music -- "Circles," "The Beigeness" and the astonishing "Lonely Daze" for a start -- one can scarcely believe they're inextricably part of a complicated whole. Carey's backing tracks are consistently robust and beat-driven but well matched to the heady staging of Tempest's magnificent drama.
But listen to this album enough -- which you will want to, often -- and curiosity about the lyrics will eventually win you over, and with rapt attention you'll find a remarkable story unraveling further with each song. Tempest only really knew Yeats and Blake before she sat down to start writing poetry, but her work proves that such matters are irrelevant to true creativity. Wise and warm beyond the scope of most of us in our twenties, she is an intimidatingly wise wordsmith and documentarian of human character and frailty. She doesn't simply relate her rapt audience marvelously to the plight of the bored-with-life barista Becky who takes a job as a "masseuse," leading to jealousy between her and the fellow overqualified blue-collar worker Pete whose alienation and shyness seem at first to be a perfect fit with her own. Rather, Tempest lets us feel both Becky's confidence and sense of justification for the work she's doing but also Pete's agony over his wondering if he's justified in his suspicion that she is actually a sex worker -- and, on another layer, exploring this without demonizing either of them. Like it or not, that's difficult as hell and extremely admirable.
Meanwhile Pete's brother Harry, who carries a torch for Becky after meeting her at a video shoot, pulls off a big but messy drug heist, and love, impulse and disappointment come rushing forth in a fast-paced climactic rage. What's more telling than the intracices of the plot -- which are rife with suggested back stories that Tempest plans to expand into a novel -- are the many details, the wisps of understanding and familiarity that ring as true as some tossed-off moment of casual affection in a Frank Borzage movie. She captures awkward conversations, little moments of fear and desperation, and observations that carry sardonic humor but also a vitality that's staggering to behold. It's so important to experience every moment and every twist of Everybody Down for yourself, but witness the way Tempest documents this moment so vividly as if she were capturing it on film:
He's got nice eyes
Shame about his issues, though
The party pushes on
Her cynicism's getting vicious
Show nothing, keep smiling
She catches the eye of her mates
They're dancing by the bar
They're in a state
Nod for "save me"
They understand, dance over
Put their arms around her shoulders
"Becky, we're bored, let's go"
His mouth slows to a stop
She smiles at him
"Yeah, it was nice getting to know ya"
That comes toward the end of the blisteringly powerful, impression-making opener "Marshall Law"; as usual, Tempest elegantly describes both sides of a conversation, in this case a pensive encounter between introverts at a party, one of whom is so excited to be asked about his life that he just talks too much and spends much of the rest of the album regretting it. The details stack up into truth; on "Lonely Daze," a guy strikes Becky's fancy because he's "the first customer to close the door behind him / for that alone she likes him." On "Theme from Becky," there is that shatteringly real moment when irrationl jealousy and the resulting caps on freedom start to pull the young lovers apart: "When he's holding her hand it feels less like her hand / and more like his hand." And the entirety of "Stink" delves into the play-by-play of a quarrel so real and evenly accounted you can feel as though you lived through it.
And maybe you did; that's how fucking great Tempest is. Not since John Darnielle has someone so successfully wrung pop lyrics from what amounts to thoroughly crafted, imaginative literature. Tempest, of course, knows these people and this world, but it cannot be charged for even a millisecond that she is failing to think outside of herself. In fact she is doing so with such consistency and joy that you're left breathless at the probing curiosity she exhibits about people, their lives, their histories, their personal tragedies. In a pop music universe where the music press openly celebrates an aging singer-songwriter for writing a song about his first few blowjobs and the time he hung out backstage with the guy from Death Cab, Tempest's skill level and selflessness are hard to fathom, as is the vibrant, novelistic story she chooses to tell, with any luck her first of many in this format.
The thing is that anybody who has ever tried to write any work of fiction knows it is fucking hard. Anybody who's tried to rap knows that the harebrained pricks who still crow about how hip hop requires no "talent" are full of rat shit. Anybody who tries to do both at once is practically running a perpetual risk of humiliation and deserves automatic respect for giving it a shot. When someone like Tempest -- someone who doesn't fit with any "scene" she's entered and is an outlier as a twentysomething white British woman performing hip hop -- creates something like Everybody Down and does so with such confidence, good judgment and performance aplomb, it's a miracle not because she's some miraculous genius any more than Orson Welles was when, at 26, he summed up and satirized the entire culture of his time with Citizen Kane. It's that you know this was an insanely hard album to create and that every second of it was worked over and thought about, and when you listen to it you are experiencing the fruits of a lot of creative labor. It is a work of art that reflects a massive amount of intelligence, good taste and -- most of all -- caring.
Tempest sounds nervous in interviews about the limelight that the music world places upon bloghypes, and moreover about being pegged as any one thing; she is always, it seems, looking to move on to something she hasn't tried yet and is alarmed at the idea of being boxed in. That restlessness will serve her well for a long life wowing the rest of us. This has been an exciting, scary year for her. But from within the U.S., it seems that Everybody Down wasn't appreciated nearly enough -- none of the country's big music publications even addressed it on their year-end lists thus far, filled with glorified Tom Petty cover bands and the aforementioned oversharing, unhinged ranters; hardly anyone even bothered to review it, the only American journalist showing any real enthusiasm having been the reliably savvy Sady Doyle. This is criminal and deeply disillusioning to some of us, but it may be that Tempest prefers things this way -- it's not unlikely that she was relieved when she lost the 2014 Mercury Prize to Young Fathers (whose album is at least good) -- since so far, the relative anonymity of the circles in which she travels have allowed her to explore her artistry and invention as freely and constantly as she likes, thank you very much. We hope with all our hearts that Tempest continues recording and makes a dozen more albums like this one, or unlike this one. But that may indeed not be enough for her. For someone as brilliant as she clearly is, those of us waving the flag are happy to just follow wherever we're led.
But if this blog is any sort of a platform (nope) or is still being read by anyone (yep), I beg you: listen to this one, and listen to it carefully. I doubt I've ever been more convicted about anything in this space.