May 21st, 2014 12:21pm

She Was So Absorbing

Kate Tempest “Marshall Law”

One of the most frustrating things to me about genre is how it can create this pressure for artists to conform to a set of established expectations, as if all possible ways of working within a form have been exhausted. This is particularly true within rap – the basics of the genre only really require rhythm and rhyming, but it’s so closely associated with a very specific black culture that artists will feel a need to conform – or perform – culture even if they’re not from it at all. (Hi there, Iggy Azalea.) Kate Tempest is exciting because while she is working within rap, she makes no attempt to be anything but exactly who she is: A working class woman from England with a background in poetry and literature. She is purely herself in this music, and I think in doing that is actually closer to the spirit of hip-hop than the sort of white artists whose entire rap career may as well be shouting “hey me too I can do that too” without much self-awareness or cultural sensitivity.

Tempest’s music and creative voice isn’t far off from Mike Skinner’s work as The Streets, but her writing style is far more literary. “Marshall Law,” the first track off her debut Everybody Down, is densely written short story set to beats. Not even in the sense that “oh, it’s a story in a song,” but like, I’m reasonably sure that if you transcribed it, it would read exactly like prose on the page. Tempest’s lyrics are extremely vivid and precise as she narrates an encounter at a terrible artsy party between a girl and an ambitious but quite lonely guy who rambles on about his feelings and personal goals and becomes convinced that he’s found a special person who GETS HIM. Of course, he never really asks much about her, so she gets bored and leaves. Tempest’s words are a cutting critique of this self-absorbed guy, but the song has a lot of empathy for him – you really get a sense of his misery and desperation for a connection, and his cluelessness about his behavior only makes his situation more tragic. He’ll probably never learn.

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