Kate Tempest brings the sublime Book of Traps and Lessons Tour to Birmingham, Music Writer Jonah Corren reviews

Written by Jonah Corren
Music and spoken word enthusiast who dabbles in poetry and songwriting.
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Images by James McCambridge

Kate Tempest’s version of rap is much more grounded in spoken word than it is in music. In Birmingham, that couldn’t have been clearer, and one half-expected the audience to be champing at the bit for a rhythm to dance to. Instead, they just watched on in awe as the foremost poet of the millennial generation delivered a powerful set that cut right to the core of what is driving society today.

The start of Tempest’s set at the played like a greatest hits reel of the artist’s previous two albums: 2014’s Everybody Down, and 2016’s Let Them Eat Chaos. These two albums saw Tempest play much more with rap-style techniques, with her spoken word running and rhyming with the music behind it. Her opener, ‘Europe Is Lost’, possibly her most well-known track, has an instantly recognisable backbeat, starting with a piece of spoken word, then transferring through what can only be described as a ‘drop’ to the bulk of the radio-friendly, upbeat tune. Despite being initially dogged by technical issues, her performance of this was emphatic, relishing killer lines such as ‘massacres, massacres, massacres, new shoes’ and ‘no nobody noticed, well some of them noticed, you can tell from the emoji they posted.’ Other highlights of the first section of the gig included Let Them Eat Chaos tracks ‘Ketamine for Breakfast, ‘Tunnel Vision’ and the mantra-driven ‘We Die’, which had the whole audience mouthing its central phrase.

The next hour of the set felt more like a spoken word show than a gig

Towards the end of this section, Tempest spoke directly to the audience, explaining that she was going to perform, for the bulk of the gig, her new album The Book of Traps and Lessons, in its entirety. Initially, some audience members may have been slightly apprehensive of this; the album explores Tempest’s less hip-hop inspired, and more spoken-word driven style. However, any doubts were soon put to rest. Launching into the spoken word prologue of ‘Thirsty’, the back of the stage lit up, to reveal a large red circle, matching the opening lyric ‘I came to under a red moon’. With every word, a new passion infected Tempest’s voice, taking pleasure in starting the audience on this journey of an album. The next hour of the set felt more like a spoken word show than a gig, with infectious and atmospheric music the backdrop for reels of spoken word that refused to be bound by rhythm and metre, with rhyme and singing coming in only when it was absolutely most effective.

Highlights of the album included ‘All Humans Too Late’, a music-less and powerful spoken word piece that is the album’s most outward-looking moment. Lyrics such as ‘The racist is drunk on the train/ the racist is drunk on the internet/ the racist is drunk at my dinner table/ shouting his gun shots and killing us all’ landed powerfully in a room filled with people hanging on the poet’s every word, and the final words: ‘“I see how blind I’ve been,” said all prophets, too late/ all humans, too late’, were met with thunderous applause. Also striking a chord was ‘Firesmoke’, at the opposite both of the personal/political and music/spoken word spectrums: an affecting and infectious ode to a lover. This piece held the whole room in its sway, with the music hypnotic in its alternating 4/4-5/4 time, and Tempest’s lyrics at their most vulnerable and tender.

Tempest combines the personal and political to urge people to turn to each other in the face of tragedy

There are angry moments in this album, comparable to Let Them Eat Chaos, but the defining feature of her latest album is certainly its intense focus on the closeness of the writer to her lyrics. The final track of The Book of Traps and Lessons and, as Tempest emphasised afterwards, the closing song of the gig, was the melancholic and profound ‘Peoples’ Faces’. In this track, Tempest combines the personal and political to urge people to turn to each other in the face of tragedy and reinforce personal connections. In its chorus, which contains some of the most rhythmic lines of the album, she professes ‘even when I’m weak and I’m breakin’/ I stand weeping at the train station/ ‘cause I can see your faces/ there is so much peace to be found in people’s faces’. Hearing that refrain, one couldn’t help but reflect upon the army of faces staring up at the poet in wonder from the pit of the Institute’s big room, and looking down from the seats in the gallery.

Tempest has amassed an incredible following from all directions: music, rap, spoken word, and politics, all united behind her unique take on genre, and her message, clearer than ever in this album: together, we can weather society, and bring down injustice. The final line of the song, simply ‘I love peoples’ faces’, was uttered with the utmost sincerity, taking time in the music’s closing stages to stand and admire her audience, moved immensely by her words, before giving a final wave, and exiting the stage.

Kate Tempest’s tour is continuing through the next few months in the UK and on the continent, and her new album, The Book of Traps and Lessons, is out now on all platforms.