The 10th anniversary of Radio 1Xtra Live is a significant reminder of how far the radio station has come. The BBC station turned 15 last year, and tonight is a perfect showcase for its championing of black British music – not just in London, but in regions around the UK: from grime, house and trap to R&B, jungle and Afrobeats. It’s become an important, virtually essential champion for grassroots talent. The fact that it has drawn over 16,000 fans to the O2 Arena in London is proof of that.
East London’s Yxng Bane, looking suave in a blue silk shirt, prowls the stage and sends fans wild with recent cuts like “Vroom”, which interpolates Sean Paul’s “Gimme The Light”. Where this early noughties throwback works well, others don’t have quite the same effect. Kojo Funds’s sampling of Craig David’s “Seven Days” on “Check” with singer Raye is a mess, and he’s unable to keep match his flow with the speedy guitar hook. Ella Mai, who recently became the first British artist to top the US R&B charts since Lisa Stansfield in 1992, brings her mellow hit “Boo’d Up” to life onstage, so that it’s more sultry than sweet.
Many artists on the lineup try to outdo one another with their grand entrances. Birmingham rapper Mist rolls in on a quadbike, headlights glaring out into the audience. Stefflon Don opens her set from a silver throne, flanked by a team of flawless backing dancers and emulating Cruela de Vil in her Dalmatian-print fur coat. Pusha T, who released his Kanye West-produced album Daytona earlier this year, is strangely lacking in charisma. Nigerian Afrobeats star Davido works up a sweat on shallow but catchy tracks like "If" and "FIA".
Headline act Chance the Rapper requires no such frills. He leaps onto the stage dressed in a simple white T-shirt, jeans and his signature cap, loaded with energy and raring to go. Mist and some of his entourage come out to watch from the seats stage-left, passing round a bottle of Patron.
It feels like an age since Chance released his game-changing mixtape Coloring Book (the first streaming-only album to win a Grammy Award) in 2016, yet at no point since has he felt absent from the current music landscape. That’s thanks in large part to his presence on a string of hit singles: “I’m the One” by DJ Khaled featuring Quavo, Justin Bieber and Lil Wayne is an obvious, but fun, crowd pleaser.
He pays moving tribute to his hometown of Chicago, where he has done more to raise money and awareness of its struggling education system than most politicians. “Angels”, from Coloring Book, is uplifting with its steel drums, brass and gospel choirs; “Work Out”– one of four songs he released in July this year – sees him marvel at the speed at which his life changed after becoming a father, but lacks the vision and nuance of his earlier work. Still, as he closes the set with a burst of confetti, arms raised, it’s hard not to leave the arena feeling a little lighter of spirit.