When Kate Tempest raps, her whole body raps with her. Her words seem to bubble up from within, coaxed along by an arched blonde eyebrow or her extended fingers, before exploding from her mouth in a torrent of rhymes. Watching her perform before a packed, overheated audience in Paris last night was like watching a small hurricane of vocabulary. Never had her stage name seemed more appropriate.
It's been a busy year for the South Londoner, born Kate Calvert, who, at 29, has firmly established herself as one of Britain's most intriguing hip-hop artists. She may already be the most hyphenated. Rapper-poet-playwright is the combination most people go with, but the order can be difficult to nail down. Her debut album, Everybody Down, was shortlisted for album of the year at last year's Mercury Prize, though it's her spoken word poetry that first drew critical acclaim. She became the youngest person to ever win the Ted Hughes poetry prize in 2013, and last year was named one of the UK's 20 "Next Generation Poets." Along the way, she wrote two plays.
"I hope you can connect with my heart on this, even if you can't connect with my mouth."
When Tempest took the stage Monday night at La Maroquinnerie, a small club on the northeast edge of Paris, she had just returned to Europe after her first concert tour in the US, which included stops in New York, Los Angeles, and Austin. If the tour was grueling, she didn't show it, greeting the mostly female audience with a wave and sheepish grin before launching into a frenzied version of "Marshall Law," the opening track on Everybody Down. Things only picked up from there, as Tempest roamed across the stage like a caged animal, spitting meticulously crafted rhymes over synth beats.
"I hope you can connect with my heart on this, even if you can't connect with my mouth," she told the audience at one point, before performing a three-minute spoken-word poem. "D'accord?"
Concert-going in Paris can be an unnerving experience, especially when it involves English-speaking performers. Crowds here have a tendency to break out in rhythmic claps, à la my parents, and language / cultural barriers can make for some awkward interactions. Last summer, I seriously thought Mos Def was going to punch a guy who wouldn't stop requesting his favorite song. But the crowd last night was unlike any I've seen in the seven years I've lived here — rapt and attentive, absorbed as much by the head-bobbing beats as the blonde whirlwind rapping over them.
Perhaps that's because Tempest is unlike any rapper I've ever seen. She easily avoids the whole white-woman-rapping stigma with her unflagging sense of purpose. There's a real urgency behind her lyrics, as if delivering them unto you is a matter of life and death. Her onstage persona is at times raw and unassuming, dripping with that elusive "authenticity" that every rapper strives for.
The giddiness of a brilliant young writer coming into their own
The UK act The Streets are often evoked as a reference point for what Tempest does — narrative-driven hip-hop set against the backdrop of working-class London — but Kendrick Lamar may be more apt. Just as Lamar did with Compton, Tempest portrays the London she knows through a series of interconnected and intensely personal vignettes, casting universal struggles through an intimate lens. They differ in style and demeanor, to be sure, but I had the same visceral reaction to Everybody Down as I did to good kid, m.A.A.d city — that unmistakable giddiness you feel when you find a brilliant young writer coming into their own, and with so much to say about the world around them.
Tempest is currently working on a novel based on Everybody Down, which makes sense, given the album's narrative nature. Over the course of 12 songs, she weaves together the story of Becky, Harry, and Pete — three 20-somethings struggling to get by in "a city where it's hard to be heard / And nothing really has much meaning." There are moments of heartbreak and hardship, but in between are the small joys that tend to get lost amid the swirling winds of uncertainty. As she told The Guardian last year, the album is fundamentally about "constructing a selfhood that you can be proud of."
It's been a long road for Tempest. She began rapping at 16 and struggled for years to land a record deal. There's no telling how newfound fame and accolades will change her career, but last night, at least, she still seemed wide-eyed and breathless — genuinely grateful for the ears her words have suddenly found.
"I can't believe how many people came out," she said with a smile toward the end of the show. You could tell she really meant it.
Kate Tempest is currently on tour across Europe and the US.