Stormzy review, Glastonbury festival: Pure, uncompromising set from an astonishingly versatile performer
It’s immediately clear that Stormzy has something his American counterparts lacked: an urgent, nothing-to-lose velocity. His specifically British energy owes as much to rave and hardcore as to hip hop
Since his 2014 breakthrough, Stormzy has blazed through barriers against UK rap and become the defining British artist of a generation. He is also the least boilerplate Glastonbury headliner in recent memory: a booking so off-the-wall that it didn’t trigger a backlash so much as a sceptical, “Let’s see what you’ve got then”.
Stormzy, it transpires, has it all. Sceptics point to his discography, with its sole full-length, as if he didn’t build his empire on a string of breathtaking singles – as if his legendary Brits performance didn’t have the charisma and vitriolic force of a thousand box-ticking headline sets.
But out of the blocks, the 25-year-old shines. He bounds out to “Know Me From” in a stab-proof vest. Riotous scenes erupt. Shrouded in smoke, he emerges for “First Things First” like a superhero stepping out of a mad scientist’s lab. When he fires up “One Take”, a minor, one-off single from 2016, the crowd unlocks levels of hysteria usually reserved for a Drake cameo.
The backdrop, which is part prison hall, part council block, part glitchy technophobic nightmare, faintly echoes Kanye’s minimalist staging in 2015. But it’s immediately clear that Stormzy has something his American counterparts lacked: an urgent, nothing-to-lose velocity. His specifically British energy owes as much to rave and hardcore as to hip hop.
On paper, the opening suite differs little from the set he’s been playing for years. But to see it on this stage, before a mass of zealots joined in fury and heatstroke, feels like one giant battalion representing half of a great national divide.
After the early blitzkrieg, the vest comes off, and with it his emotional armour: there’s a pas de deux by two dancers from the Ballet Black troupe, followed by the appearance of a gospel choir. Stormzy croons a pair of purple-hued slow jams before airlifting us back to high-energy safety with his “Sweet Like Chocolate” remix. Another remix, of Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam”, finds him spotlit and glowering like a pre-game boxer. “I know they put me on the poster just to match the quota,” he spits in the song’s verse, written at a time when his festival supremacy was still in question.
After a brief pause, a mighty roar goes up – presumably from those who had a tenner on Chris Martin as the first special guest. They duet on “Blinded by Your Grace, Pt 1”, with Stormzy perched on the Coldplay Man’s piano bench. For “Return of the Rucksack”, Stormzy bravely calls up a certified show stealer: one tiny, track-suited girl in a sea of older dancers. She busts moves like an All Blacks scrum-half squaring up to a lion.
When momentum sags, it is not for lack of ammo but an over-eagerness to please. Two-thirds into the set, any doubts long banished, he blasts his “Shape of You” remix. Stormzy spits his verse, but Ed doesn’t appear. Why bother, except to bring the doomsday clock of another Sheeran-headlined Glastonbury four minutes closer to midnight?
Overt political statements fail to materialise, though his arsenal of Boris Johnson disses – including “Vossi Bop”’s evergreen chantalong, “I’ll never die, I’m Chuck Norris/F*** the government and f*** Boris” – get mighty roars. But to look for outright polemic misses the point. From the disarming ballet suite to footage of grainy street spats on the video screen, the set seeks to erase the binary between those people of colour deemed, by the ruling class, to be acceptable and those not.
In her Homecoming documentary this year, Beyoncé spoke of the need to bring “our culture” to Coachella, rather than donning her California flower crown. Stormzy, to his credit, does the same: some illustrious guests (Dave and Fredo also feature) and a buttoned-up live band can’t hide that this set was pure, uncompromising Stormzy – a grime masterclass from an astonishingly versatile performer who, it seems, can do anything he pleases.