iTunes festival: Lady Gaga; Rizzle Kicks – review

Roundhouse, London
Lady Gaga's return to the London stage was thrilling for its sheer pop-star nuts-ness

We pay pop stars to do two things. Chiefly we employ them to go out on a limb so we don't have to. They are tasked with disrupting the mundane by dressing ludicrously and behaving like mild sociopaths. If they can sing and dance a bit, so much the better.

We also require our pop stars to play the coy game of false revelation, in which these exotic, gilded beings occasionally drop the mask to reveal… just another mask. Did anyone really learn anything of seismic psychological interest about Beyoncé from either I am… Sasha Fierce, or her "documentary"? Did getting into bed with Madonna – as per her film of 1991 – reveal anything other than a level-headed professional alpha female with awesome glutes? Of course not.

Lady Gaga – the former Stefani Germanotta – is, if nothing else, a dab hand at being a pop star. The very best thing about her return to the London stage on the opening night of the annual iTunes festival is the sheer nuts-ness of her sets – pig-masked, white-clad dancers blasting spray paint from bungee harnesses during Swine for one – and the slow tease of Gaga's notional unmasking.

Gaga's costume changes virtually all take place onstage, in which she goes from knife-wielding ninja to Botticelli's Venus (via Shakira, it has to be said) to wigless girl emoting at a keyboard, a persona recognisable from her pre-fame YouTubed sets. At one point she is pretty much starkers. At another, she puts on some socks she bought in Camden market. It's a persuasive conceit, and as close as Gaga gets to an actual art statement. We become complicit in her artifice. Nice.

The songs, though, are another matter. The bravery of Gaga's music has always lagged far behind the risks she takes as a moving 3D final-year installation. This latest batch, previewing her forthcoming album, Artpop, is no exception. Perversely, the two most traditional songs stand out a mile: Applause, the self-referential out-and-out pop banger, and I Wanna Be With You, a belted ballad to her fans.

The rest is certainly varied. With no less than three guest rappers, Jewels and Drugs adopts the guest-list approach to songwriting favoured by hip-hop and R&B, to no obvious gain. Cumulatively, these songs are merely all right. Aura begins promisingly, with some Spanish guitar and a murder. Thereafter, the shock-and-awe digitals can't quite glue together a track of many contradictory segments.

Manicure finds Gaga embracing her inner Cher; it's catchy, but hardly the ear-popping tour de force that was Bad Romance. The title track, meanwhile, says what many critics of Gagaism have voiced. "My artpop could mean anything," sings Gaga, on a mid-tempo shrug of a song. This is not some bold statement about limitless creativity, it's an admission that Gaga's creative vision is rather too open-ended: mostly mouth, and – as her own splendid glutes go by yet again – a little scanty in the trouser department.

The songs are, however, very much secondary to the idea that tonight, Gaga wants to reveal something other than flesh. She shows us her real hair, which would be pretty special if 21st-century western culture still had taboos about such things.

The long prelude to Swine finds Gaga alluding to what was probably an abusive relationship when she was a young party kid. I'm paraphrasing, but in essence she wears these wigs because, afterwards, she found being herself quite hard.

The song, though, swiftly morphs from a howl of disgust into a prog-glam chord progression, and then into a manic rave workout. Somehow this makes you feel a touch less sisterly solidarity for Gaga's pain than perhaps you ought.

Rizzle Kicks are not pop stars, at least not in the Gaga sense of the term. They're far more fun than that. When their perky debut album, Stereo Typical, came out in 2011, few would have seriously banked on its success. Old school hip-hop, rapped by mischievous Brighton teenagers, peppered by Mariachi horn blares? These two young Brit school graduates seemed destined for niche appreciation at best in a chart landscape sculpted by stadium rave-rap, despite all their wit and effervescence.

iTunes Rizzle Kicks
‘Mercifully unencumbered by theory’: Harley 'Sylvester' Alexander-Sule and Jordan 'Rizzle' Stephens of Rizzle Kicks at the Roundhouse. Photograph: Gaelle Beri/Getty Images Photograph: Gaelle Beri/Redferns via Getty Images

Instead, Stereo Typical sold very nicely – 360,000 in the UK, 500,000 worldwide – and was illegally downloaded umpteen thousand more times. Its successor, Roaring 20s, came out on Monday, and Rizzle Kicks' iTunes set literally bounces with new tracks that segue seamlessly into the old. As well as a live band and a DJ, there's a two-man brass section doing synchronised dance steps when they aren't punctuating Jordan Stephens's and Harley Alexander-Sule's raps. Stephens's shirt is sopping by the end of the encore, Down With the Trumpets.

Having gained a reputation for being relentlessly upbeat, Rizzle Kicks' current single, the not-very-downbeat Lost Generation, finds them addressing modern evils – reality TV, Jeremy Kyle, the practice of buying views on YouTube. Drawing from a very British tradition that includes Lily Allen's LDN single and the works of Madness, Rizzle Kicks are mercifully unencumbered by theory. Unexpectedly, though, they do have a curly blond wig of their own, just like Gaga. Stephens puts it on for a dare during Me Around You, and then boots it, unceremoniously, across the stage.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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