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Skepta and Kanye: A Tale of Two Rappers at Glastonbury

Has Kanye become so obsessed with perfecting the way his performance looks that he’s willing to sacrifice the way it feels?
June 28, 2015, 2:44pm

A lot’s changed at Glastonbury since the Levellers headlined in the early 90s. Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Metallica and Basement Jaxx have all triumphed atop the Pyramid Stage, proving there’s room for non-rock acts. Yet there is still particular unease with hip-hop’s place here, as evidenced by the change.org petition to cancel Kanye’s performance and a few “Fuck Off Kanye” flags across the campsite. Part of that is plainly racism on the part of white lads who had to toss between coming to Glastonbury and Magaluf. But you can sense there is another, more reasonable complaint from the weathered old hippies wandering down from the Greenfields: does a man obsessed mostly with himself and expensive high-fashion brands fit with a festival supposedly built upon the values of inclusivity, environmentalism and charity?

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Before we find out which way the wind blows for Kanye, there is the small matter of Skepta’s evening performance. Over the past year, he’s successfully transformed the anything goes bursts of energy of a grime rave into a more traditional gig, his recent tour feeling as much punk show as grime rave. Still, Glastonbury is a different beast, and grime has struggled here in the past; wet muddy tents and early afternoon slots are not the spirit in which this music is made.

Photo by Carys Lavin

But when Skepta comes on to the opening bars of “That’s Not Me” the whole tent starts bouncing up and down within seconds - a crowd reaction that's at least ten times more frenzied than anything else we’ve seen this weekend. There are screams and gun fingers, everything is in sync. "It Ain’t Safe" goes just as hard, and even 10 second bursts of “Doing It Again” are frenzied. This feels like one of those truly memorable festival moments, like Arctic Monkeys in a tiny tent before they were big or a Daft Punk secret set, that sees every young person in the vicinity clambouring over each other trying to get in, with queues out the block. It's immense.

Photo by Carys Lavin

And so to leg it over to Kanye, which isn’t as difficult as you might expect. The Pyramid Stage is busy, obviously, but not rammed - it might have even been busier for George Ezra earlier in the day. Still there a good spirits and anticipation. You sense the haters have made the right decision and headed somewhere else.

The stage goes dark and the opening bars of “Stronger” send an optimistic shiver through the audience - this is going to be a crowdpleaser set, maybe even rant free. Kanye is revealed under an impressive ceiling of low hanging lights. It’s followed by “Power”, with its carefully layered choral samples transforming nicely into a festival chant. You start to see the route by which Kanye could win this.

But something isn’t quite right. The backing is a little quiet, Kanye seems slightly despondent, and when it gets to “Paris” hope begins to fade a little, a song which has provoked riots at previous shows feels almost downbeat here, people sway gently.

From there on, things are patchy. Kanye seems thrown by the lack of response to his verses from “Clique” and “I Don’t Like”, choruses he’s used to hearing screamed back at him are barely audible. There are spectacular moments for sure: ”Blood On The Leaves” feels almost magical, Kanye’s pained vision for the song realised as crouches down under dimmed lights. There’s a run, from “Jesus Walks”, “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” and “Runaway”, when you can feel the energy shoot up, and for the first time it really feels like Kanye has intent. When it finally seems like he’s realised the occasion, he starts “Touch The Sky” and then disappears for three minutes, only to appear on a crane platform high above the Pyramid Stage. It’s a nice touch, but it comes a little too late to truly transform the show.

It’s easy to forget that Skepta spent a bit of time treading water in his career. He was still making great music, but there was too much of it and it was getting lost among cheesy pop and dodgy videos. What turned things around was a bit of Kanyefication, releasing less music with more creative input, thinking about the whole package - videos, releases - telling a story with each new piece of output. Yet, throughout that process, he’s not lost sight of his main appeal: a visceral connection to his fans.

Kanye, on the other hand, has become so obsessed with perfecting the way his performance looks that he’s willing to sacrifice the way it feels. Twice last night he stopped a song because something had gone a bit wrong with the sound, creating an awkward halt in proceedings that further severed his connection to the audience.

Photo by Carys Lavin

It was a stylish performance - classy even. But Glastonbury isn’t that classy, it’s kind of cheesy and you’ve got to find a way to accommodate that (of which Kanye is more than capable - as his pre-written back and forths with Jay-Z during the Watch The Throne tour proved). It will probably look like the best set in nicely edited TV highlights. But you wanted to leave there feeling like you could prove the haters wrong, rub his brilliance in their wizened old faces, and you couldn’t quite do that. In the end maybe he wasn’t quite the right fit.

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