Wireless was once the Holy Grail of festivals for UK rap fans. Reeling in overseas big shots such as Drake, Travis Scott and more, it has consistently been the UK’s best rap-curated festival for years. When the event was based in north’s London’s Finsbury Park, despite endless sound complaints from residents, it felt intimate and special, with a mutual love if rap in the air. But since fan concerns about overcrowding in 2019, the festival has lost a little of its sheen.
Last year’s Wireless, in its then-new home of Crystal Palace Park, did something to redeem the event’s reputation, as punters could see the main acts more clearly than at Finsbury Park. Yet there are still problems with the new Wireless, as disabled fans criticise the site’s accessibility and some scheduling choices prove baffling. How can Brit Award-winning, critically acclaimed rap star Little Simz be the third act at 4pm when she headlined the West Holts stage at Glastonbury?
On Friday, as you walk up the make-shift metal stairs to the main stage area, there’s a little less buzz than you might expect. It just doesn’t feel like your typical, chirpy Wireless crowd. Perhaps it’s because the festival has spread its bets this year, with separate events with different line-ups occurring concurrently at Finsbury Park and Birmingham’s NEC from July 8.
Yet those scheduling issues don’t help. You’ll go from freaking out in a mosh pit to the hyperactive sounds of Trippie Redd or Lil Uzi Vert to the more subdued and melodic likes of Don Toliver and The Kid LAROI. You can see, in the squashed crowds surrounding you, static bodies simply waiting for the next act. For fans of the stars currently on stage, that can be a massive buzzkill.
There’s another line-up contrast at play too. Seminal London designer brand Trapstar (a sponsor at this year’s Crystal Palace Wireless) hosts a Palace stage takeover that showcases new talents from across the world, including Itlay’s Rondodasosa and New York’s B-Lovee. This is heartwarming to see but, at the same time, the mood around the main stage becomes more conflicted when controversial R&B star Chris Brown comes out.
With a set of inflatable tiki-style purple structures behind him, Brown expresses his gratitude for being there (“Thank you Wireless for finally letting me see my fans”) and emotionally points out that this is “the first time his son has ever seen me perform”. Yet many conflicted crowd members awkwardly sing along, and some youngsters stand still through his set of old, chart-topping hits.
Things pick up when ASAP Rocky closes Friday night, even though the stylish New York rap pioneer is upstaged by Rihanna’s momentary appearance in the crowd – her first public outing after the birth of their baby boy. Rocky exudes explosive energy, though it’s a shame that, when he plays his most popular track here, ‘Paise Da Lord’, there’s no Skepta to assist him. Many funnel out during his set, but Saturday promises something different: J. Cole and his conscious lyricism.
Before Cole comes out, though, there is a little more fun to be had – even if, with, Lancey Foux and Playboi Carti on the line-up, it feels like a missed opportunity to put them one after another in the schedule. After Lancey’s signature “Ch–yeah!” fills the air as he rabble-rouses with his turbulent, punk-inspired sound on the Palace stage, it would be fun to keep the energy up by jumping into the massive moshing craters in the crowd for Carti’s apocalyptic set. Instead, Carti comes out a few acts later with smudged makeup, headbanging dancers, and a spooky-looking guitarist. It’s certainly a step-up from his one-man Primavera Sound performance.
When he remixes his synth-heavy ‘Whole Lotta Red’ tracks into zingy rock tunes, the crowd goes berserk – and it’s the first time you can hear festival-goers talk about having too much fun. So it’s a refreshing change of pace when Dreamville founder J. Cole closes out Saturday. Coincidently, two other Dreamville signees, Bas and Ari Lennox, are on the bill too. As Cole rolls out his heart-warming set full of ‘2014 Forest Hill Drive’ hits, before rapping tracks from his latest album, ‘The Off-Season’, he brings out his two friends to perform with him. There isn’t much mosh pitting in sight, but it’s all out of respect for the lyricist and his masterful words.
Yet Wireless saved the best ’til Sunday at Crystal Palace Park. Throughout the whole weekend, all you can hear is murmurs of how excited people are for Tyler, the Creator. Like Chris Brown, the rap star was banned from the UK during Theresa May’s stint as Home Secretary — which he still makes a thing about (“Tell Theresa May I’m baaaacckkkk!”), while the crowd chant “Fuck Theresa May”. Yes: we’re still salty about it – but Tyler makes up for lost time by giving us a typically great performance. He’s engaged, telling the audience to “suck his dick” when they don’t scream loud enough, and warning ahead of the biggest mosh pits of the weekend for ‘NEW MAGIC WAND’: “Stuff your hat into your dick or your pussy, so we don’t lose our shit”.
It is a truly mesmerising set. If you weren’t already a Tyler fan, you surely left Wireless with no doubt that you’d just seen one of the world’s greatest performers live, a fact that almost redeems the iffy scheduling and some tone-deaf booking. Wireless doesn’t end with big flashy fireworks, as most festivals do: Tyler is the grandiose ending we needed.