Wretch 32

Durex Intimate Sessions, Glee Club, Birmingham, Wednesday, September 18

What makes a small show great? It’s not just about seeing the sweat dripping from whoever’s onstage, it’s about closeness, too. Those moments where there’s no divide between stage and crowd and everyone’s sharing a particular special connection. Playing such a close-knit environment tonight as part of the Durex Intimate Sessions is not easy to do if you’re an MC who has to maintain a macho image, but Wretch 32 nails it. Rather than bashing out the same set he’s been playing at festivals all summer, he treats this tiny venue to a “journey of life”, during which he picks the most lyrically open songs and blends them into a sensitive boy-meets-girl narrative played out over a sumptuous soundtrack of funky keys and slap bass.

With less instrumentation, Jermaine Sinclair’s lyrical skill is amplified, and he candidly reveals the story behind each song to weave a plot together. ‘All That I Need’ is him wanting space in a relationship, and the R&B smoothness of ‘Don’t Go’ from 2011’s ‘Black And White’ album is about a time “when I realised how much I missed her and needed her back in my life”.

Next is ‘Anniversary’, a honeymoon moment when the couple are back together again. “I feel like we just got intimate,” he says, laughing before a cover of Justin Timberlake’s ‘Suit & Tie’. Things then take a turn because, Wretch says, “Mad highs come with big lows” – and the soulful keys that colour his words eventually segue into new song, ‘Flatline’. “If you’ve got a life you better live it/If you’ve got love you better give it“, he raps with a lump in his throat. Afterwards he encourages the people in the crowd to hug each other, before giving his bassist a bear hug too.

Wretch 32’s upcoming third album ‘Growing Over Life’ is about maturing, making peace with the past and moving into new areas of expression. “I used to run around the flat saying ‘Braap’/Now I’ve got the whole of Birmingham saying it back“, he sings on ‘Don’t Be Afraid’, and tonight’s set captures that whole process. He goes from a tumultuous youth to a pensive man confessing to his mistakes in ‘Forgiveness’. Then he allows his story a happy ending – bouncing onstage with collaborators Jacob Banks and Shakka for a brilliant ‘Blackout’. It’s a near-rave finale that produces smiles all round.

Simon Butcher