Lovebox review – Childish Gambino leads diverse corrective to Trump visit

Gunnersbury Park, London
While SZA was delayed by the Trump protests, other artists were energised – including Childish Gambino, who scaled up his music to unprecedented size

The Trump visit – and subsequent protests – coinciding with Lovebox affected the festival in more ways than one. Besides SZA’s highly anticipated set being cut after just four songs, reportedly due to a late arrival because of the protests, the political events also inspired an air of resistance. From those donning anti-Trump protest gear to a rhetoric of encouragement among performers, including Childish Gambino who was “proud to see that big balloon”, a resounding optimism permeates Gunnersbury Park. The diversity of talented voices across the weekend, particularly given the festival’s notable US weighting, served as perfect opposition to political uncertainty arising here in the UK and across the Atlantic.

Anderson .Paak and SZA backstage.
Anderson .Paak and SZA backstage. Photograph: Scott Garfitt/Rex/Shutterstock

Previously a dance-oriented festival, Lovebox has begun to reposition itself, both physically in its move to west London, and sonically, aligning with the surge of UK rap and the currency of R&B and hip-hop in popular culture. The change in direction pays off massively. With a big baptismal slot from the 20-year-old south London rapper Dave and a takeover from underground video channel Just Jam featuring Kenny Allstar, K-Trap, 67 and Suspect, the UK scene garners eager, cheerful crowds overflowing beyond the realms of the humble Noisey tent they grace. These MCs paint a hugely positive, populist picture of a rap movement often characterised as niche and antisocial.

That said, the dance offering is by no means lacking, with glitter-adorned shuffling to veterans Bonobo, Jon Hopkins and Bicep, and prime slots for emerging electronic names: prodigious producer Mura Masa, who wheels out crowdpleasing pop bangers but whose absent guest vocalists create a charisma vacuum, and captivating French duo the Blaze, whose emotive, distorted live vocals transport crowds to the rich narrative worlds they craft in their music videos.

However, as a result, a divide is apparent. While laid-back R&B musos listen to the dulcet tones of SZA, and rap fans nod heads to titans Wu-Tang Clan and Big Boi alongside energetic young blood Vince Staples, a hefty portion of the crowd are determined to dive directly into party mode before sundown. A strength of Lovebox is to accommodate such broad motives, but at times the clash becomes jarring: you have to duck and dive through swarms of overzealous gun fingers, unwelcome dance partners and already-vacant stares to watch LA funk band the Internet, fronted by the impossibly cool Syd, as the sun sets behind them.

Skepta at Lovebox.
Skepta at Lovebox. Photograph: Scott Garfitt/Rex/Shutterstock

Despite this, Kali Uchis impresses both tribes with powerful vocals, sultry moves and appearances from the Internet’s Steve Lacy and R&B wunderkind Jorja Smith. Anderson .Paak delivers an incredibly smooth performance, jumping from rapping to singing, drumming to dancing at the drop of a hat. Friday headliner Skepta reminds us of the strength of his catalogue, with vibrant street classics through the ages, bringing out his grime collective BBK and more, before ending the show with his latest anthemic feature on A$AP Rocky’s Praise the Lord.

Man of the hour Childish Gambino interweaves old and new on Saturday night, with an epic, funk-filled set, including two just-released summer anthems. Invoking his distinctive onstage persona, Donald Glover’s set features bold choreography, chilling falsetto screams and dramatised facial expressions reminiscent of those in the viral video for his polemic hit This Is America – with which he ends the show, to scenes of synchronised thumping chaos. Throughout, Gambino manages to apply a newfound scale to himself and his music, and in doing so, reinforces his position as an unstoppable entity on the brink of another new, exciting chapter.

Natty Kasambala

The GuardianTramp

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