The London poet's debut is a tragic, redemptive rap fable indebted to The Streets 'A Grand Don't Come For Free'
Kate Tempest is 27 years old, a poet from Brockley, south London, and recipient of the Ted Hughes Award for her 2012 piece Brand New Ancients. But that’s just the half of it. She left school with no A-levels, hung out in squats, sung in bands, and her voice itself is hardly plummy: one of those 21st-century London accents comparable to Jamie T or Micachu, a seen-it-all drawl dotted with street slang and glottal stops that sounds one minute like it might mug you on the top deck of the 171 bus, and the next like it might crumble under the cracks of emotion.
As a performance poet, Tempest is good, in a sort of ‘on before Robin Ince in the Latitude literary tent’ kind of way. As a rapper, though, she’s excellent, balancing deft flow and dense storytelling to the detriment of neither. Recorded in a fortnight stretch with Dan Carey, a producer and remixer for the likes of Bat For Lashes, Toy and Hot Chip, ‘Everybody Down’ brings to life a plotline that’ll be more fully explored in Tempest’s debut novel, published by Bloomsbury later this year. It’s hard to imagine it being more gripping than this, though. Carey’s neatly sculpted club productions tone down Tempest’s occasional tendency towards whimsy, and inflate moments of emotion or tension. The result is both a 12-track album and a modern-day London fable: a tale of love, tragedy and redemption as elegantly plotted as The Streets’ ‘A Grand Don’t Come For Free’.
It begins with strobes and the stench of sweat. ‘Marshall Law’ beams you right to the bar of an insufferably fashionable east London club, where a velour-clad video director holds court and “everyone here has a hyphenated second name/Blowing more breeze like the wind at a weathervane”. There, a girl called Becky falls into conversation with Harry, a reluctant drug dealer who’s overindulged at the free bar and splurges everything about his miserable life. The music shifts and mutates in line with Tempest’s unfolding narrative; as strobe lights flash, the synths warp and flicker. Harry falls for Becky, but Becky leaves with her mates, and they laugh about it in the cab: “I know he was one of those save-me types/And I couldn’t be dealing with that, not tonight”.
And so, a story creaks into life. Tempest writes complex and believable characters, each one carrying their problems like a lead weight hung inside their heart. She has a skill for spinning perspectives. On ‘Theme From Becky’, the heroine finds her way into sex work, but takes a certain pride in her job, and Tempest makes her case without judgment. But then ‘Stink’ scoops us into the head of her boyfriend Pete, a turbulent maelstrom of electronics with a cameo from Willy Mason that broils with cuckolded jealousy: “He can’t find the words to say/I don’t want your hands on another man’s vertebrae”.
No spoilers, obviously, but the story that follows is a lurid and dramatic one that spans a drug deal gone wrong (‘The Heist’), a dreadful bargain made over a pub table (‘A Hammer’), and a man with the “complexion the colour of chewed-up bar snacks”. There’s plenty of narrative exposition, but Tempest is fast-tongued enough to spit story even over the racing funk of ‘The Beigeness’, and tracks like the Roots Manuva-ish ‘Lonely Daze’ drive home the theme – that only love can save us – with honesty and clarity. It all comes to a climax, so to speak, on ‘Happy End’. Not everyone leaves unscathed, of course, but Kate Tempest isn’t the sort to sugar-coat things: this is storytelling, but it’s also real life.