Alternating between poetry, spoken word and hip-hop, Kate Tempest is like a 21st century Patti Smith. She honed her craft at open mics during her teens, toured the English-speaking world with her band, Sound of Rum, and eventually found success as both a poet and playwright. In 2014, she returned to music with “Everybody Down,” a narrative album about the trials and tribulations of a handful of London youth. The album paired her poetic rapping with ragged electronic beats, earning her a Mercury Prize nomination.
On Thursday night, Tempest visited U Street Music Hall, rapping with the earnest intensity of a slam poet over a patchwork of digital drums and synthesizers, her flow a rapid-fire attack of syllables and similes.
Tempest’s music draws from hip-hop, electronic dance, industrial and dub reggae; it’s often as cacophonous as her lyrics are dense. Sometimes, she was forced to compete with the dystopian beatcraft of her backing band, and her voice was reduced to just another percussion instrument. For an artist whose words are so crucial, this seemed like a mistake. Thankfully, the a cappella portions of songs like “Marshall Law” allowed vivid images about “industry slimeballs” dressed “head to toe in yellow velour” to come to life.
That was also the case when Tempest gave the band a break and performed spoken word pieces, unspooling poems that bounded between motivational platitudes and evocative metaphors and finding humor amid the pathos. The crowd cheered when she described herself as “half priestess, half circus freak,” and it roared when her lyrics arrived in a double-time fury. Crowd-talkers were sternly shushed.
Feel-good truth-telling is a thread that runs through Tempest’s poetry. On this side of the Atlantic, it is reminiscent of the type of hip-hop that has been pigeonholed — fairly or not — as “conscious rap,” where the messages are heavy-handed and value is measured by the syllable.
Before her final song, she entreated the “citizens of the world’s two most powerful nations” to think about “dark times” around the globe, begging for “more empathy, less greed.” Her message to the audience — in her closing speech, her lyrics and her a cappella encore — was decidedly anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist: a salve for despondent progressives but hollow for cynics who have heard these refrains before at both hip-hop cyphers and political rallies.
But there were few cynics at U Hall on Thursday. Instead, a few hundred people of all ages escaped a night of unseasonable, Londonesque weather in D.C.’s finest subterranean sanctuary, enraptured by a young artist with the gift of gab.
Kelly is a freelance writer.