Central Cee review – drill star’s homecoming straddles viral hits and attention dips

<span>Photograph: Joseph Okpako/WireImage</span>
Photograph: Joseph Okpako/WireImage

A homecoming show in Alexandra Palace’s great hall arrives as a cap on an extraordinary couple of years for west London rapper Central Cee. Riding UK drill’s foray into the echelons of pop, he’s staked a solid claim as the first genuinely global UK rap star of his generation. He has the chart placements (seven Top 20 hits) and the streaming stats (20 million listeners a month on Spotify), but does he have the catalogue and the charisma needed to carry a room like Ally Pally? On this chilly November night, the fruity tang of Elf Bar vapes – a telltale sign of a young audience – mingles with the anticipation in the air.

His charisma is undeniable: he barely has to breathe to raise rapturous squeals from the crowd. But the catalogue? “I wish I had more hits,” he says, in a moment of candour towards the show’s close. “I’ve not been in the game long.” Hence, he explains, the name of his tour, Still Loading, which ends tonight after stops in Europe, North America and Australia.

It’s a show of raucous peaks and placid lulls. The curse of having a viral mega-hit – as Central Cee does with the Insta-quotable Doja – is that you’ll inevitably have a large contingent standing through the hour, waiting for that single 90-second dopamine rush when the one they know comes on. “Just fucking play Doja,” one well-watered punter shouts, apparently only half-joking, midway through the set. But Central Cee navigates these ups and downs well, maintaining a polished performance throughout, his hand steady on the gearstick.

For the most part, he rips through songs at a clip – many of his best-known tracks barely graze three minutes – stirring a sea of Snapchat streamers: rowdy hit 6 for 6 gets stopped halfway through to allow stewards to rescue fallen moshers and give the crowd a breather; his skippy PinkPantheress collab, Obsessed With You, sets off a wave of two-stepping and adolescent coos. A drone whizzes over the crowd, filming clips that will be beamed back to them later on TikTok.

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He conjures a bit of theatre for 23 album track Lil Bro, bringing his younger brother – a rapper himself – on stage for the track’s heartfelt back-and-forth about the pitfalls of road life. As the two shut out the room for a few moments to trade lines, an intensity descends that might otherwise have dissipated into the crowd. It’s a glimpse of where Central Cee’s sense of stagecraft is heading.

Given that his best songs are beefed up with organic instrumentation on record – trumpets on Loading, picked guitar on Day in the Life – it’s a shame not to see a little more ambitious staging tonight. Simply rapping these songs over a backing track lacks the dynamics needed to fill a room of this size. Dwarfed under an ever-changing visual array on the big screens, the slight rapper (and his DJ, propped on a flimsy table) can look a bit lost at times.

When the audience serenades him with the chorus of Commitment Issues, or plays karaoke for Overseas, the aloof persona melts away, replaced by a pearly grin stretching beneath his cheekbones. There’s a glint of pending superstardom in that smile, if he can just let it out.