You don’t often see a live five-piece string section and two tricked-out quad bikes sharing the same stage. But this performance by east London grime MC Ghetts packs in both sophistication and street appeal. Adrenaline and serenity entwine; drama and musicality receive equal billing. Best of all, this high-spec, guest-laden live stream is free – intended as an appetite-whetter for Ghetts’s forthcoming November tour.
The rapper roars into the venue – a complex called Magazine near London’s O2 Arena – on one of the bikes in the filmed introduction. But it’s a thoughtful track called Fine Wine that opens the set, as it does Justin Clarke’s excellent recent album Conflict of Interest: disembodied, operatic voices entwine with classical instruments and a live band led by his brother, Kadeem Clarke.
Wearing a bold Puma tracksuit and exclusive-looking trainers, Ghetts switches between a slow, storytelling cadence and his more hectic, cortisol-fuelled flow as he tells of a period of failing to make a living from his art, of having to get his partner to cover a bill, of the shame of being recognised by a fan while making ends meet as a delivery driver, and then of doubling down on his music, “going back to the essence”.
There’s a pause, during which the rapper physically freezes after the word “suffering”. Then he jumps back on the beat. “Still loading … just buffering,” he notes slyly – just one occasion tonight where the former mile-a-minute grime MC once known as Ghetto shows off an elevated sense of timing.
This venue has a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, and throughout an all-killer, no-filler 40-minute stream, the lights of Canary Wharf serve as a backdrop. The rapper’s native Plaistow is not far away; nor are the metaphors of how very different lives are lived cheek-by-jowl on this side of the metropolis.
The set focuses tightly on Conflict of Interest, a record that has clocked up one very notable statistic: it is, at the time of writing, the second most highly rated album of the year so far across all genres on the US aggregator site Metacritic – second only to a Black Sabbath remaster.
Dizzee Rascal turns up to run through his hyper ad libs with glee
Like Kano’s Made in the Manor (2016) before it, Conflict of Interest is a tour de force in which this veteran MC reflects deeply on violence and unconditional love, nice cars and the distance he’s travelled. Deploying stark digital productions and just the right amount of classical filigree, Ghetts distils two decades of musicality and hard-won wisdom in both the business and the shadow economy. He has, he says, long since swapped an “ex” for an “i” (ie, he was an ex-con, now he’s an icon), referring to spells in prison as a much younger man. It’s an impressionistic spatter of boasts, put-downs, tributes and analysis from a skilful rapper who is regrettably not a household name yet – although Conflict of Interest should change all that.
The set gets rowdy – several guest rappers turn up, notably for the uncompromising No Mercy, featuring the young drill MC BackRoad Gee and Coventry rapper Pa Salieu, who won the BBC Sound of 2021 gong. The heart of the performance, meanwhile, is dedicated to Ghetts taking stock of his past on Autobiography, weighing up the past and the people who helped him along. “I come from where the mums are worried,” begins Proud Family, “where father figures are heartless killers.” Here and elsewhere, there is an active understanding of what women – grannies, mothers, girlfriends – must go through.
There is little danger of this rapper’s core constituency accusing him of going soft, though. Fire and Brimstone combines a preternaturally calm beat with Ghetts remembering the times he had to wait until dark to climb through a window. East London grime legend Dizzee Rascal turns up to run through his hyper ad libs with glee.
If you were being picky, it’s a shame that some of the album’s other featured artists couldn’t be here. Mozambique is one of its most extraordinary tracks, given wings by the South African vocalist Moonchild Sanelly, whose contributions tonight come pre-recorded because, y’know: pandemic.
Similarly, national treasure Stormzy is unavailable for his verse on Skengman, the creepy set closer. It’s a track that’s hard to defend on paper (“skeng” means weapon), so slickly and cinematically does it reflect young male ultra-violence. But the song is superbly realised. “I could be the bigger man but dem boy dere don’t respect man’s growth,” Ghetts sighs as scything strings and massed voices swirl around the staccato bleakness. As the black and white cinematography strobes around him, he just throws out a brand new verse to fill the gap.