Last year, hosannas flocked to Little Simz’s album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert like iron filings to a magnet. It was a nuanced document of black British excellence, hard-hitting and beautiful by turns. All those plaudits could serve as crib notes on the forthcoming project by yet another versatile and resonant London MC, Kojey Radical.
To be clear: Simz and Radical are very different creatives with distinct voices and life paths. But in their late 20s, both have brought artistic evolution and sumptuous musicality to bear on career-defining narratives. Simz is up for four big Brit awards: artist of the year, best new artist, album of the year and best hip-hop/rap/grime act; we’ll know the results on 8 February. Fast-forward a few months and Radical’s nominations should flow.
Almost a decade in the game, Radical is due to release what is officially his debut album, Reason to Smile, in March. This gig is a bijou 600-capacity warmup for all that is to come, a bridge between past and future. (He plays London’s 5,000-capacity Brixton Academy in April.) Backed by a full band, Radical has come dressed in brightly coloured shades and a hyperreal, landscape-pattern suit that echoes the big sky of his forthcoming album cover. There are fluffy clouds across his chest and a waterfall down one leg. The bass guitar is flesh-pink, an electric guitar glitters gold.
His choice of songs reflects tonight’s interim nature, with baton passing from era to era. Water, an electrifying old single from 2018, segues into War Outside, a new album track released last September. Both feature the complex lived experience of blackness, nagging choruses and signature eerie whistling.
“I’m too scared to speak to God, there’s shooters in the churches now,” Radical raps on Water. War Outside finds him “sippin’ holy water while I listen to hypocrisy”. Nothing is ever straightforward in a Radical lyric, which is why he hasn’t been marketed as a more conventional grime MC.
He can go as hard, verbally, as the road rappers or the drillers. But the Radical goal is advancement and healing. His body of work takes in spoken word and the African diaspora as much as it does grime and funk. And his grandstanding is not just scattershot testosterone, but reasoned argument.
A few months ago, Radical put out a standalone freestyle on Link Up TV, a portal for UK hip-hop. Tonight, as then, he lays waste nimbly to the opposition. “Anything they say they done did, I done did it twice,” he glowers. “And if I didn’t do it here, I did it in another life.”
In case anyone was wondering where he ranks in the pantheon of UK wordplay, Radical can call witnesses: Stormzy, Kano, Wretch 32 and Ghetts. “Stormz said I’m nice, Kane said I’m nice, Wretch said it next, Ghetts said it twice,” he seethes. “I’ve got flesh wounds bigger than you!” he barks on If Only, best known from the TV series Top Boy.
Before the pandemic, Radical released Cashmere Tears, an album-length EP full of sex, sorrow and tunefulness. 2020 was supposed to be the year the man born Kwadwo Amponsah finally arrived. Covid dumped ice on that momentum and everything else. Things are so bad in the night-time economy that the National Lottery, in association with the Music Venues Trust, has funded a series of gigs – the Revive Live Tour, of which this gig is a part – to aid ailing concert halls.
Hearing many of the highlights of Cashmere Tears again tonight, Hours stands out as a Prince-level funk jam where Radical breaks out his falsetto. “Can we switch positions baby, I got something I wanna show you,” he croons.
Reason to Smile follows confidently on from that era. The album title nods to mental health challenges, something Radical says tonight is “not a buzzword, not a moment, not a month” but “continuous work”.
Two more of its new songs slap hard. The production on Payback is taut, all thwack and bounce, with Radical rapping about money. So far, so hip-hop, but, as ever, there are subtle points about justice being made here. “Until we multiply black wealth, fuck a statue,” he seethes.
Gangsta, the final song, finds Radical sitting down on the edge of the stage. Subverting expectation once again, the song makes the case for his mother being hard as nails and worthy of respect. Again, it finds him welding a singalong chorus to some intensive work on his conscience. Despite an undercurrent of troubled righteousness, this is a rapper who examines himself as much as he eloquently critiques the systems that hold his people back.