Kanye West is in town. Have you noticed? Yes, you probably have, because he’s been omnipresent, stomping all over the capital, spilling emotions everywhere, leaving a trail of considerable media destruction and becoming the city’s clickbait king. In seven days he’s jumped on tables at Nando’s, set fire to the Brit Awards, cried with Zane Lowe, had a lie down with Jonathan Ross, handed out trainers in Carnaby Street and popped into Central Saint Martins for a nose around. He’s done more here in a week than I have in my life, and also found time to hop over to Oxford University to lecture students about consumerism, release a single (‘All Day‘) and appear in a new video (Big Sean’s ‘Blessings’). Then, just before 7pm yesterday, he tweeted that he’d be playing a surprise gig at Camden’s Koko. Doors: 11pm. Stagetime: whatever.
Kanye last toured here with Jay Z in May 2012, only returning for the odd festival date, so the mere existence of this gig, in advance of his forthcoming album ‘So Help Me God’, was enough to create a frenzy on the streets of Mornington Crescent. The fact that it was happening so suddenly, in the 1,400-capacity Koko (still charming after all these years), amped up that frenzy, adrenalising the queue against the cold, which was just as well as the doors didn’t open till after midnight. People had been there since nine. Phone batteries were rinsed. Designated friends were dispatched to get six-packs from Sainsbury’s and coffee from Chicken Cottage. All spoke of Kanye, about how elated they were to have got tickets, about how excellent ‘All Day’ is. When he arrived at the stage door to soundcheck there was cheering and clambering and Instagramming.
Once in, people pitched up, flooding down the front or running upstairs to seize prime balcony positions. The buzz was huge. Behind me on level two, a fight broke out for no particular reason, and after much punching and shoving, someone was ejected. Next to me was an excitable young guy who wanted to talk about how excited he was. This was his first ever proper concert (he’d been to a 1Xtra event, he said, but that didn’t really count), and he was beside himself. At 1am when the lights went down and the ‘All Day’ intro began, he went nuts, as did everybody. But the intro stopped, and instead of Kanye on came London grime heroes Skepta and JME, who launched into ‘That’s Not Me’, and the crowd lost it.
It was a smart move by Kanye, bringing two of London’s own on first, and it set the stage for an incredible night of collaborations, with Kanye only appearing on his own for a minute or two at a time. Throughout, he showcased cohorts, protégées and heroes, enjoying them as much as the audience did. As Skepta and JME finished that first track, Kanye appeared with Big Sean, and the pair ripped through Mercy, from 2012’s collaborative Cruel Summer album. Sean, Skepta and JME guested throughout the show, on solo songs as well as with Kanye. Other rappers did the same – Vic Mensa on Kanye’s new one ‘Wolves’, CyHi The Prynce on ‘So Appalled’, and there were more London grime artists, including Meridian Dan and Novelist. Often there were a good eight or nine people on stage, like some amorphous supergroup. The energy was immense, the crowd jumping and moshing throughout. Kanye did too, leaping around relentlessly; early on, as CyHi freestyled, he bounced about next to him, beaming unapologetically.
So this wasn’t a typical Kanye set. There were no volcanoes, no chats with Jesus. No medleys, no masks, no rants (except for when he stopped ‘Jesus Walks’ to berate a tech guy for displaying the wrong projection slide behind him, sounding like an irritated Don Logan (from ‘Sexy Beast’) as he made the poor sap flick through them all: ‘Next. Next. Next. Next.’). The set pounded all the way, never mellowing – nothing from ‘808s & Heartbreak’, no ‘Only One’. And when he did have the stage to himself, he filled it. ‘Power’ felt like an earthquake; ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ was wired; ‘Black Skinhead’ crunched.
Koko heaved as one, like some Borg-like swirl; I’ve never seen the place quite so chaotic. During Kanye’s ferocious take on ‘New Slaves’, people were reaching down to pull others up the balcony. People were standing on tables, hanging from things, smoking things, crowdsurfing. The bouncers were busy. Towards the end, the stage already riddled with rappers, Kanye appeared from the wings with his arm around Raekwon, who did Wu Tang’s ‘C.R.E.A.M.’; that didn’t help matters. Then to finish, with a scaled down version of his Brits mob, Kanye and everyone else did ‘All Day’, then they went off, and then they came back and did it again. And then, as unceremoniously as they’d all arrived, they left. As ever, Kanye had been thrillingly unpredictable. Ninety minutes of mayhem.
Our verdict: ★★★★★
By Alex Godfrey
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