She has been garlanded by everyone from the compilers of the Mercury shortlist to the judges of the Poetry Society’s Ted Hughes prize, but on paper at least, Kate Tempest’s new album still seems like a tough sell. It’s a 48-minute long hip-hop-influenced performance poem about the alienated lives of the residents of one south London street, set to a variety of post-dubstep bass music. It opens with an invocation of Mother Earth and ends with a plea for humanity to, as Primal Scream once had it, come together as one. In between, it variously takes aim at capitalism, gentrification, celebrity culture, political corruption and global warming (“the water is rising, the elephants and polar bears are dying”). There is a joke about David Cameron having it off with a pig’s head. It’s somehow redolent of the kind of well-meaning event you see advertised at a local arts centre and make a mental note to avoid at all costs – partly because it seems so painfully earnest, and partly because at least half the audience seems likely to consist of recalcitrant 14-year-olds dragged there by an English teacher who insists pupils call him by his first name and says things like “Siegfried Sassoon was the Lil’ Wayne of his day”.
But there’s a reason Kate Tempest has become the first poet to make authentic headway in the world of pop since John Cooper Clarke and Linton Kwesi Johnson the best part of 40 years ago; to cross the boundary from performances at the Edinburgh Fringe and, indeed, local arts centres to making albums that are eagerly awaited by people who don’t normally take much notice of performance poetry. There are plenty of talented people doing their thing at poetry slam events up and down the country, but only Tempest has been gifted an hour of prime-time terrestrial TV on which to launch Let Them Eat Chaos.
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