Wireless festival review – British rap stars show Americans how it's done

Finsbury Park, London
In his first major set since leaving prison, J Hus made a joyful homecoming and outshone much of the A-list American talent – the irrepressible Cardi B aside

It’s barely past lunchtime on Friday when the first wig goes flying through the crowd. It will be joined by numerous others throughout the weekend. Even Cardi B gets in on it during her headline set, snatching her own wig during Bodak Yellow and hurling it to delighted fans, before asking for it back on Twitter the next day.

It is a neat symbol for the boisterous, mostly innocent energy of Wireless, a summer party for young, multicultural, expensively accessorised Londoners with Europe’s best lineup of rap and R&B. Cardi is perhaps the biggest star, and her set is pure joy. As well as being strong on the mic – all diamond-hard consonants and constant emphasis – there is her reality-show immediacy, complaining of asthma and introducing her husband, Offset, as “a fine chocolate man who hitting my thang”. From sex to social graces, we could all be a bit more Cardi B.

Lil Skies.
Histrionic SoundCloud rap … Lil Skies. Photograph: Scott Garfitt/Rex/Shutterstock

Travis Scott is the other genuine superstar, bringing his 2018 album Astroworld to psychedelic life with warbling Auto-Tune, melting visuals and a giant inflatable teddy bear. But three days is enough space to show the depth and breadth of today’s rap scene. Lil Skies and Trippie Redd represent the face-tattooed, histrionic arm of SoundCloud rap. Lyrically they may only ponder the tussle between their id and ego – sexual and pharmaceutical urges are fretted about but heeded nonetheless – but they are pretty decent showmen, the former delivering earnest playground melodies, the latter finishing the second half of each track in powerful a cappella.

The irrepressibly fun Megan Thee Stallion brings pure club rap – her hi-vis jacket paired with hot pants suggests a woman twerking at nine but needing to deliver post at six – while J Cole affiliate JID gives the weekend’s best lyrical display, delivering even ostensibly laid-back tracks such as Working Out from the balls of his feet. You’re also never too far from a rendition of Sheck Wes’s Mo Bamba – whether in his own set, the climax of Scott’s, or hollered by random teenagers, it remains enormous more than two years after its release.

J Hus.
Joyful … J Hus. Photograph: Scott Garfitt/Rex/Shutterstock

But elsewhere, the American A-listers don’t fare so well. In headphones, Young Thug is the most interesting rapper working today, all tomcat yowl and bluesman melody, but he is unforgivably lazy here, lacklustre on the mic and bringing out Juice WRLD to perform the latter’s hit Lucid Dreams, which he performed in his own set just an hour beforehand. Much of the interest in Migos’s set, hampered like others by muddy mics, lies in their startling grills and almost fetish-gear man bags; Future stirs briefly into life for his harder DS2 material but also makes little effort, relying on a series of British guest stars – including D-Block Europe, Krept & Konan – to defibrillate his set, along with a security guard pulling the woah, rap’s latest dance craze, to the intense delight of the crowd.

Indeed, the Brits often show more hunger and invention. Coventry’s Jay1 is nimble and cheeky on Becky and Your Mrs; Steel Banglez has his hit-filled set enlivened by MoStack and, improbably, a slightly sheepish Raheem Sterling; Ella Mai’s R&B is rich and creamy, while IAMDDB’s is deliciously smoked. Skepta’s secret set is solid but less remarkable, and there is a jack-of-all-trades feel to AJ Tracey, who is ambitious and talented but spread slightly thin across speed garage, grime, R&B and more. But Not3s, by focusing on romantic, well-written tracks with one of the weekend’s few live bands, is building a sturdy career amid the landfill Afro-pop that is starting to emerge.

Swae Lee of Rae Sremmurd stage dives at Wireless festival.
Swae Lee of Rae Sremmurd stage dives at Wireless festival. Photograph: Scott Garfitt/Rex/Shutterstock

East Londoner J Hus replaces a newly imprisoned A$AP Rocky, playing his first major set since leaving prison himself for carrying a knife, at a festival he was removed from last year following his arrest. The audience are the loudest, most word-perfect and most moshpit-happy they’ve been all weekend, for an already classic catalogue. They go wild at the sight of Hus joyfully running free along the channels in the crowd.

It takes young duo Rae Sremmurd to prove that Americans can deliver after all. With the audience hollering the words, they mostly dispense with their mics for knee-jerk stage dives, champagne hosing and parkour-like roaming across the crowd – a gleeful expression of puppy-dog energy over some of pop-raps greatest tracks: Powerglide, No Type, Unforgettable. Somewhere, another wig is surely being liberated.


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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