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Kano isn’t the first voice you hear during the rapper’s sundowner set at All Points East. Instead, it’s the full, lush harmonies of gospel that quieten a restless crowd. The five singers have backed the rapper’s shows for some time now, lending his music a distinct quality, something denser and more layered. Something to sink your teeth into. Most memorably tonight, their ethereal voices chime in perfect unison as they tell tens of thousands of festival-goers to “suck your mum” in the lyrics to Kano’s hit song “SYM”.
Throughout his hour-long set, Kano swaggers. Dressed in a navy blue Gucci tracksuit, the rapper bounces gleefully from one foot to the other as he works his way around the stage. One hand on the mic and the other slicing through the air like physical markers of punctuation: a series of metaphorical exclamation marks and full stops emphasising his lyrical skill. Other times, the swagger manifests as a stillness instead. Kano looks so secure in his stature that he can afford to strip away the braggadocio when it isn’t required.
The setlist mostly comprises tracks from his acclaimed 2019 album Hoodies All Summer. Alongside its bonafide bangers, it’s also an album rich in the sort of contemplative, gentle tracks that are not so easily translatable in such a large, open space. Here in Victoria Park, Kano’s more subtle and technical qualities – that had been spotlighted by the crisp camerawork and intimate access afforded by Glastonbury’s recent livestream – are in danger of being drowned out by an easily distracted crowd and their canopy of cigarette smoke.
It’s undeniable then, that it’s those bonafide bangers that are rewarded with the bigger reaction. The same effect could be witnessed at other All Points sets, where Jamie XX’s “I Know There’s Gonna Be” and Little Simz’s “Boss” whip up the biggest hype. At Kano, the crowd’s adoration is never more intensely felt than during the performance of his early rapid-fire, gut-punch hit “P’s and Q’s”. We’re all word-perfect as we holler the 2005 track’s chorus back to the rapper on stage. Even those unfamiliar with Kano pick up on the cues soon enough.
Alongside the gospel singers, horn and string sections have become fixtures in a Kano live performance. Where other musicians choose to relegate their band to some unseen, make-shift orchestra pit, Kano’s instrumental team stand proudly front and centre with the main man himself. The stage’s big screens dole out equal camera time between the grime MC and his supporting artists, or as he later refers to them: “The real g’s”. Their onstage presence is matched by the power of their performance. Although they may fall under the category of “backing”, they feel like the blood and soul of some of these songs. In particular, the horns roam expertly between Kano’s beats, magnifying and punctuating them in dazzling, carnival style.
Besides the band and singers, there’s some pageantry too. The aforementioned Gucci tracksuit is zipped away to reveal a second outfit (also Gucci), and lights flash neon green and shocking orange behind the rapper. But for the most part, Kano takes a minimalist approach to production. As ever, it is his flow that becomes the focus of attention: an engine that redlines across the entire set. His lyrics, packed with references to east London, also find a natural audience here.
When there is additional production, it’s done with purpose. Kano’s track “Trouble” – a piano-led tune chronicling the ills of living in an everyday war zone – is interrupted midway as a video of a Black boy stabbed on-screen grips the audience instead. Blood slowly pools around him until the screens run an ominous shade of red. Meanwhile, the conflicted patriotism of “This Is England” is visually hit home by shots of the Marcus Rashford mural in Withington, plastered with thousands of post-it notes. Although illegible to the crowd at this distance, we know what they say: messages of love and support for a footballer who was targeted with racist abuse in the wake of England’s Euro 2020 loss to Italy.
Since his 2005 debut Home Sweet Home, Kano has developed a reputation for growth. Every one of his albums has been met with praise for the rapper’s ever-growing skillset and his reluctance to become complacent as a master of just one style. It seems the same is true of his approach to live performances. As shown at All Points East, they continue to mark him as one of the country’s most exciting acts.