The Mercury Prize stands as a celebration and promotion of the best of UK music, and no album on this year’s list sums up 21st Century Britain more than Kate Tempest’s Let Them Eat Chaos.
South London born poet/spoken word artist/rapper/playwright Kate Tempest started off performing at open mic nights at the infamous Carnaby Street record store Deal Real. The store played an essential part in the UK grime and hip-hop scene in the early noughties until 2007 when it closed. They ran a weekly open mic night in a place run by people who genuinely loved the art form. A night with no commercial undertones, no industry, no racial or class divides, no smartphones, just performers and fans from all over. Memorable performers include local newcomers Amy Winehouse, Doc Brown, Example, and Mark Ronson, all of whom would be on the same bill and freestyling alongside US heroes like Kanye West, Mos Def and Slick Rick. There never was, and never will be another place like it, and Kate Tempest was an inexorable part.
Since then Tempest has gone on to support some of the UK’s greatest wordsmiths and musicians from all walks of life, from Billy Bragg and Scroobius Pip to John Cooper Clarke and Benjamin Zephaniah to just name a few. I first saw Kate Tempest in 2014 at the Norwich Art Centre playing her debut album, Everybody Down in its entirety. In the months between the album release and this date, she had been nominated for her first Mercury Prize. She missed out on the win that year due to some of the best newcomer albums coming from fellow nominees East India Youth, FKA Twigs, Jungle, and the winners, the incredible Young Fathers, but this year, nothing stands close.
From the second she walks on stage until the second she finishes her spoken word encore, the crowd is in complete silence and awe. Her words pierce through everyone’s heart and her voice expresses her youth as well as her pain at the world we live in, set over harsh electronic beats. The whole act is impossible to ignore. This was seen on a major scale at Glastonbury this year, when she made headlines and blew up social media with a set that left audience members in tears and speechless, starting with a scathing attack on Teresa May, Rupert Murdoch and the class divides appearing in our country.
Let Them Eat Chaos is about those divides. Set at 4:18am, Kate takes us through the story of seven individuals, who all live on the same street but have never met, and live very different lives. This is until a storm hits that causes these seven strangers to leave the comfort of their homes and see each other for the first time. 4.18am is a time that means many different things to different types of people. It could be the final hours of a night out, coming home from or working a night shift, a time of reflection, loneliness and alienation. By placing the album in a particular time frame, it forces the listener to imagine themselves in place of the characters, their own experience of that time impacting how they approach the record.
Everyone who listens can find a connection with each character in some form. On Ketamine For Breakfast, Gemma is a young woman reminiscing about her younger self and the mistakes she has made, “bad girls were drinking with, I gave ‘em puppy dog eyes for the acid on their fingertips”, and linking her low self-esteem with the types of relationships she has, “If you’re good to me, I will let you go… If you’re bad to me, I will like you more.” On the next, and one of the hardest hitting tracks, ‘Europe Is Lost’, Kate tells the story of Esther, a social worker who is in her kitchen making a sandwich after finishing her night shift. She is a woman like many of us whose character is defined by her job, she is always worrying about the state the world is in, and the lack of care individuals show towards refugees, animals and world crises, but the passion they put towards “two for one drinks in the clubs… washed off the work and the stress, and now all we want’s some excess, better yet a night to remember that we’ll soon forget”.
Tracks like this show Kate’s power to portray a story and perform with such a delivery that is impossible to ignore. I defy you not to react out-loud when she wheels out the killer “xaught sniffing lines off a prostitute’s prosthetic tits. Now it’s back to the house of lords with slapped wrists. They abduct kids and fuck the heads of dead pigs. But him in a hoodie with a couple of spliffs, arrest him he’s the criminal.”
In a year where half the nominations have gone pop, if the Mercury Prize wants to continue supporting the best of UK music, and especially that of the underground like it has for many years, then Ed Sheeran, Alt-J and Blossoms just don’t make the cut. Stormzy might have the Corbyn connection but he too fails to address many of the issues plaguing Britain in 2017 directly on record. The only artist on the shortlist that sums up the time we live in, can do it with carefully constructed verse, and that can make a difference with their words, is Kate Tempest, and that is why she deserves the award.
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