Proof that the self-anointed number one rock star on the planet is in town is snaking around the streets of Camden, past off-licences, fried chicken shops and pubs. At 12:30am, 90 minutes after the doors were supposed to open, the queue for Kanye West’s surprise KOKO show is dense, restless and running out of cans of Red Stripe. But no one’s going anywhere: Yeezy season approaching.
The conditions are different this time around. When Kanye sprung a last-minute show at the Hammersmith Apollo in London in February 2013 he was in art mode – performing on a stage made to look like snow fields while wearing a diamond-encrusted mask, then a yeti mask, then a straitjacket. When he headlined Wireless Festival in July 2014 he had his rant on, accidentally telling the crowd to “fuck my face” during a 15 minute speech. Tonight the vibe is generous benefactor, master of all he surveys.
A criticism levelled at Kanye’s decision to bring out a group of grime MCs for the Brit Awards performance of handsome new track ‘All Day’, was that none of them were rapped any verses. Inside KOKO, everyone who’s come along for the ride is front and centre.
The pre-show tension pops as Skepta, Novelist, JME and Meridian Dan bounce on stage at some point after 1am, to spit their verses from Skepta’s 2014 mega-banger ‘That’s Not Me’. Kanye protégés Vic Mensa and Cyhi The Prince dance behind them. In the wings lurk Big Sean and West, waiting to invade the stage to perform West’s own ‘Mercy’, before the set flips back to grime for Meridian Dan’s ‘German Whip’ and JME’s ’96 Fuckries’, then onto Kanye once again for the eerie, icy ‘Cold’.
Over the course of the next hour, US hip-hop and UK grime combine sometimes seamlessly, mostly chaotically but always ludicrously entertainingly in a showcase of raw rapping prowess. It’s a blur of intense energy, everyone fighting for attention. On menacing string-backed new track ‘Blessings’ the focus is on Big Sean as Kanye kneels by his side, for the recently revealed ‘Wolves’ and the brand new horns ‘n’ bass of ‘U Mad’ (both from Ye’s soon-come ‘So Help Me God’) it’s Vic Mensa’s turn in the spotlight, and during Skepta’s ‘It Ain’t Safe’ and three-days-old ‘Shutdown’ West simply steps back to watch and dance with a delighted grin on his face as the MCs around him deliver bar after brutal bar.
When Kanye’s alone, he entertains as usual. His expert comic timing is deployed sparingly – he limbers up for ‘Jesus Walks’ by getting off-stage to flick through the images on the screen behind him until they find the necessary picture of Christ on a cross – and mostly he’s tight and focused. On ‘Clique’ he cuts the backing track and uses the crowd as a beat to rap over, and stops ‘Black Skinhead’ first time around to get his desired “only strobe” lighting. Other hits – ‘Power’, ‘All Of The Lights’, ‘New Slaves’ – are casually, gloriously, rattled out.
Things take a turn for the utterly ridiculous when Raekwon pops up in a flat cap and leather like it’s no big deal for a version of the Wu Tang Clan’s ‘C.R.E.A.M’, before a finale of ‘Blood On The Leaves’ (for which Kanye orchestrates a circle pit in the crowd) and two renditions of mighty new single ‘All Day’, performed with the entirety of tonight’s guests on stage. The song, just like the entire night, is an awesome display of power and unity.