Stormzy review – victory lap for the big dog

Newcastle Utilita Arena
Two years after he was due to tour his second album, the rapper makes the most of arena-sized spectacle – though arguably, he could carry the show without the special effects

As Stormzy points out, the audience in Newcastle bought their tickets for this show two years ago. While he says he’s delighted that they showed up – “I thought, ‘fucking hell, we’re still here’” – there’s a sense in which the unexpectedly protracted lead-up to his arena gigs has worked in his favour. It’s certainly an odd position he finds himself in: touring his second album, 2019’s Heavy Is the Head, just as he’s about to release its follow-up. But the lengthy delay means he’s not performing less familiar, recently released material, but well-worn songs from a platinum album that have been streamed millions of times since its release.

Album tracks are greeted like greatest hits, the audience word-perfect not just on the obvious smashes – Vossi Bop, Own It and Big for Your Boots (from his debut album) – but on Rachael’s Little Brother and Do Better. The entire show feels like a victory lap, amplified by recent events: six months after the live industry more or less resumed activity, there’s still a distinct sense of release – of something more than the usual excitement of a big arena show – about the crowd’s reaction, which starts at fever pitch and ramps up as the gig goes on.

stormzy
‘An idiosyncratic phenomenon.’ Photograph: Andrew Timms

If it’s something of a risk packing the middle of the show with so many pensive, R&B-infused tracks – Crown, Cigarettes and Cush, Superheroes – you wouldn’t recognise it as such from the response. Stormzy’s fans react to the sound of Dave’s voice on Clash in a way that makes you wonder what they’d do if Dave was actually on stage, rather than on tape. They greet a video urging them to pre-order Stormzy’s forthcoming third album at the merch stand as if it’s the greatest news they’ve ever heard instead of an advert. Just before launching into Shut Up, he pulls on a Newcastle United shirt proffered from the crowd – with, it has to be said, some difficulty: whoever gave it to him was clearly acting on a spur-of-the-moment impulse rather than handing over a gift bought with Stormzy’s six-foot-five proportions in mind. The resulting noise suggests that their response to everything else that’s happened was just the sound of them warming up.

The show itself is both big on arena-sized spectacle – there’s a vast amount of pyrotechnics and a giant set of scales on which Stormzy is hoisted above the crowd – and oddly simple. Save for a moment where they follow him down the ramp that extends into the crowd during Rainfall, his band are hidden behind a screen – for the majority of the show, Stormzy is on stage alone. You wonder whether he needs the special effects: bathed in sweat, jogging with his knees cartoonishly high as he raps, he’s a remarkably compelling presence in his own right.

As the show reaches its climax, he performs Blinded by Your Grace Part 2 from Gang Signs & Prayer before a huge projection of a crucifix towering over the world. The audience join in, as indeed they have done with everything else, but the sight of a crowd of rowdy teens and twentysomethings happily singing along to what’s essentially a hymn – “Oh my God / What a God I serve” – acts as a reminder of what an idiosyncratic phenomenon Stormzy is: ordinarily, British pop really doesn’t do religion, and yet here we are. “I’m the big dog, I made the whole arena bark,” he’d snapped earlier, amid the torrent of immodesty that constitutes the lyrics of Rachael’s Little Brother. On tonight’s evidence, it isn’t a boast but a statement of fact.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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