This is my third look at poetry in modern music.
Back in 2005, Gorillaz released Demon Days, an album that spoke of many of the miseries and catastrophes we face on Planet Earth today. Then, just before the end of the album, Dennis Hopper performs a spoken word piece Fire Coming Out Of A Monkey’s Head, which then gave way for The London Comminity Gospel Choir to turn the whole album around, telling us to turn ourselves around to face the sun/The Son. This album was full of energy and lively music with so much to dance to. Even though it was an album of issues, part of it was also a party.
A few years earlier in 2002, The Streets released their first album, Original Pirate Material, which was spoken word and music quoting normal life in working class England. It was humorous, with quotations of things men say when drunk and in a kebab shop; “if there was a war on, I’d be on the front lines!” With its music, unique insights and fun, Original Pirate Material was something you’d want to listen to over and over, as I did.
Last year at the 2017 Mercury Awards, Stormzy’s album Gang Signs and Prayer won the award. It also won a Bafta or two. There had been many criticisms that music awards in the UK had become too white, and so many grime acts were up for awards this year after judging panels became more diverse.
Stormzy’s album is another look at working class London from his perspective as a Black man. There’s quite a bit of swearing and gangster- like conduct on the album. Then, just as Prince sandwiches sexual songs between religious songs on his many albums, Stormzy interperses the crime with the divine, complete with prayers from elders as well as his renowned Gospel song Blinded By Your Grace. The inclusion of elders praying and talking gives a community feel, much like Arrested Development’s 3 Years 5 Months and 2 Days In The Life Of, yet with a distinctive London working class flavour.
Kate Tempest, the renowned English poet and spoken word artist lost out to Stormzy at The Mercury Awards. Yes, an album of poetry – with music as a background filler – was up for a music award.
Let Them Eat Chaos starts with the planets orbiting our sun and then we beam down to London, white working class London. Tempest tells us stories about seven people who all are awake at Silly O’clock for seven different reasons, and she brings them all together in the track Grubby towards the end of the album where she uses the phrase, “Existence is futile” – a nice twist on the Borg saying, “Resistence is futile”, delivering meaning.
There are some other good turns of phrase such as, “His thoughts are like a pack of starving dogs fighting over the last bone” and “Street-smart, jabbering gnome”. Unfortunately, Tempest fails to deliver more such like gorgeous, clever turns of phrase. She seems to have concentrated on telling stories, which is great, but when I hear a poet, I would like to hear more of the poetic.
The pity about Stormzy’s album and Kate Tempest’s album is that they are both quite depressing and angry. Unlike The Streets’ first album – which had some great music and singing backing up their humorous words, I do not really want to listen to Stormzy’s album nor Tempest’s album again. And that is a darn shame because there are some real nuggets on both albums.
Compare these albums with their gritty subjects (McJobs, knife crime, working the night shift in care homes and drug use) the first album released by Arrested Development that covered issues such as racism, street violence and sexual harassment of women and poverty, I wonder why these new albums concentrated on the dark side of life continuously, whereas Arrested Development talked about the dark but they also talked about the light. They rapped about educating ourselves, not judging people, giving time to others and giving everything over to God, trusting that God will listen to our pain and sort everything out.