Skepta, Danny Brown, Annie Mac and co lead a weekend of blazing hot thrills
This year, east London’s usually polished Lovebox festival resembles a post-apocalyptic battle-scape, as soaring temperatures shroud Victoria Park in Mad Max levels of dust. The dirt clogging the air only adds to the atmosphere of an event whose traditional chillout vibes have given way to a more in-your-face brand of dance of rap.
A Friday afternoon of grimekicks off with London MC Novelist, who hits the Radio One tent like an electrical storm. It’s no wonder the crowd is entirely comprised of teens: you have to be young and/or on a lot of uppers to even keep up with the ragga-rude likes of ‘War’. Next up is Action Bronson, who spoils a heavy, rampaging performance by ferociously tonking a stage invader dressed as a Droog and throwing him off stage. Obviously this is what happens when you get on the wrong side of an 18-stone former chef turned hardcore rapper, but still it’s excessive and unsavoury. Fortunately rising London grime artist Little Simz – whose fourth mixtape ‘Blank Canvas’ was released via Jay-Z’s Life And Times website – is on hand to restore some class to proceedings. Wise, witty, funny and poised, her precociously authoritative stage presence has the crowd gripped.
That most Don-like of grime artists, Skepta strides onstage to greet a boisterous crowd desperate for latest single ‘Shutdown’, now officially the soundtrack to London’s summer. His main stage set is the event of the afternoon and, watching as tens of thousands rap every word of his Boy Better Know anthems you wonder if grime is about to become the UK’s default pop sound. It’s gun-fingers to the skies time as ‘BBK’ gets everyone aggy and amped, before a commanding performance of ‘That’s Not Me’ that’s positively kingly. When Skepta drops THE BIG ONE to finish, the pogo-ing buckwilders kick up a cloud of dust in front of him like a nuclear mushroom.
As evening draws in, Californian hip-hop foursome Cypress Hill draw liberally from 1993’s ‘Black Sunday’. The most listenable hip-hop album of the gangster rap era makes for festival gold – all call-and-response pop and heavy jump-around funk. Highlight ‘Insane In The Brain’ makes a gnarly Latino block party out of these lovely east London pastures.
On to Saturday afternoon and Danny Brown’s set is by turn brilliantly weird and brilliantly abrasive, with horrific synth-rap blockbuster ‘Die Like A Rockstar’ making for a bad-vibes wake-up call to the lounging hippy contingent. Jessie Ware’s set of deluxe soul cuts comes on like the festival equivalent of a silver Rolls Royce: impressive but frustratingly slow-moving. This is the stuff of marble-floored supper clubs, not frenzied parties in the park. Brassy songs like ‘Wildest Moments’ are suitably grandstanding, and the sultry summer R&B of ‘You’re Never Gonna Move’ is perfect for late-afternoon July, but the show is met with indifference on the peripheries, where the chemical teens are itching to get their rave on.
This is where the main stage’s next contestant comes in. Annie Mac is a party-starter of international acclaim but hardly one of dance music’s biggest names. However, like yesterday’s David Rodigan set before Skepta, the Radio 1 DJ essentially serves as an outrageously over-qualified warm act for Hot Chip. The veteran nerd-tronica quintet have become big festival slot specialists, largely because they’re able to adapt their tunes to suit the occasion. Tonight the dance head-heavy crowd get Miami funk and Calypso treatments of a hit-packed backcatalogue. As the sun goes down, we’re treated to a house reworking of Springsteen’s ‘Dancing In The Dark’, because every Chip set has to include a cleverly incongruous cover (see Glastonbury ’08’s skip through Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares To You’ for another example). It’s the weekend’s highpoint.
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Snoop Dogg’s headline show, however, is a cliché-ridden, lazily conceived anti-climax. Reading closely from the Rappers Guide To Playing Festivals, he raps over a rock standard (Joan Jett’s ‘I Love Rock & Roll’), extols the virtues of smoking weed to an audience of whizzy Londoners before sparking a doob on stage (edgy) and engaging autopilot for a run through less-than-stellar mid-noughties tracks like ‘P.I.M.P’. The unsatisfied crowd bids a hasty retreat for the after-parties, but one dud performance can’t detract from a weekend of blazing hot thrills.