He is now a family entertainer: Stormzy at the O2 Arena reviewed

9 April 2022

9:00 AM

9 April 2022

9:00 AM


O2 Arena

Sam Fender

OVO Arena Wembley

Self Esteem

O2 Forum Kentish Town

Stormzy occupies a curious place in British pop culture right now. He’s the darling of liberals for all his good deeds – setting up an imprint for black writers within Penguin, and a charity to put black kids through Cambridge. He’s also the figurehead of UK hip hop, which at times has made him a lightning rod for the particular worldview of certain people. ‘Is it asking too much that he show a scintilla of gratitude to the country that offered his mother and him so much? Instead of trashing it,’ wrote, inevitably, Amanda Platell in, inevitably, the Daily Mail, after Stormzy had attacked Theresa May’s government over the Grenfell fire.

You don’t see so much of that sort of coverage these days, and a glance around the O2 showed why. Because the other thing about Stormzy is that he is now a family entertainer. His crowd is not angry youth, clad in hoodies and daring the O2 security by smoking weed.

A couple of rows in front of me sat three unmatching boys of maybe 12 or 13, accompanied by, I guess, the mother of one of them. I was transfixed by the sight – down on the floor near me – of an entire family, mum, dad and two teenage sons, the lads looking troublingly unmortified by being out with both parents. The crowd was mixed in age, sex and race and everything else, and Stormzy treated them as if he were hosting a street party for them, dancing like the world’s most embarrassing uncle, and exclaiming ‘Oh my days!’ between songs as if he were swapping gossip on the front step. The arrival of Ed Sheeran for ‘Own It’ and ‘Take Me Back To London’ upped the family hysteria, and proved that Stormzy’s peers are no longer people he once namechecked, like Wretch 32, but pop royalty.

There was a tension in the show, though, between the R&B ballads and the rapping. To be blunt, Stormzy isn’t all that great a singer, and while the message of those songs matters to the whole package of him as renaissance man, he’s twice as exciting when he’s rapping, on ‘Cold’ or ‘Vossi Bop’, over the chilly, dislocated sound of UK hip hop.

Sam Fender’s a curious one: a young man making big, anthemic songs about everyday life. That, inevitably, has had him pegged as the Geordie Springsteen, but the truth is that the songs which got the biggest response at Wembley had less in common with Springsteen than with a group who have taken one element of Springsteen and crossed it with others: in his metronomic efficiency, his dedication to four-to-the-floor propulsion with added sax, he’s exactly like the American band the War on Drugs. He’s admitted the debt before, but at gig volume it was an absolutely unmissable parallel.‘The Borders’, especially, sounds completely like the War on Drugs, bar Fender’s voice being higher and more yearning than Adam Granduciel’s.

I think, perhaps, the Geordie Bryan Adams might end up being a more apt comparison than Springsteen. Fender has something of the air of Adams in the early 1980s: his songs connect with vast numbers of people, but as with Adams, there isn’t the complication and ambiguity that began to haunt Springsteen. At present, live at least, he has two moods – windswept melancholy and windswept celebration – both of which enable his audience to engage in their favourite activities of putting their arms around each other beerily, or just throwing their beers in the air. But there needs to be a third gear – and, with time, a fourth and a fifth.

Before Rebecca Lucy Taylor – Self Esteem – came onstage at the Forum, my wife was telling me about what young women go through. About the man who told my daughter on the Tube the other day that he wanted her to spend the day on her knees in front of him. About how my son’s girlfriend can’t step out of her house without men shouting things at her. Self Esteem makes pop music for people who have to go through those kinds of experiences. All around the place were groups of women shouting the words back at her, even when – as on ‘I Do This All The Time’ – the words were spoken. ‘One day I would love to tell you/ How the best night of your life was the absolute worst of mine,’ seems to me as chilling a line in its implications as anything more explicit.

Last year’s album, Prioritise Pleasure, was one of the big critical hits of 2021, and it’s easy to see why. It sparkles with intelligence and wit. For all its anger, it’s not joyless: the Forum was partying. But – yes, woke bro weeps crocodile tears – it felt like a very uncomfortable party to be at as a man. Still, as the adage goes, the worst I might have to fear going out among a couple of thousand women is discomfort. It could never be the absolute worst night of my life.

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