Everybody Down, by Kae Tempest
Suggested by Phillip Staines
Having stumbled upon a Kae Tempest (formerly Kate Tempest) interview earlier this year, and deduced that they sounded intriguing, I went into Everybody Down full of cautious optimism. High lyricism and working-class subject matter… what’s not to love?
My caution was unfounded. This album is a piece of work.
Part rap, part beat poem performance, Everybody Down is a single story told over twelve tracks and forty-eight minutes. It centres on Becky, and her family and friends, and touches on gritty topics such as drugs and prostitution alongside more eternal themes like family and loneliness. Kae has a Voice with a capital V, and the story she tells is as beguiling as it is disquieting. It’s uncomfortable but never crass, almost discussing the dark parts of the soul in passing. It’s witty, and it’s charming, and it’s thoroughly engaging.
It’s not a simple tale, however. As a listener, there’s much to take in, and the delivery can be both breakneck and breathless alongside plodding and deliberate. You can’t really pause in your attention, as the train of thought can be derailed in an instant. This album will definitely blossom with multiple listens, revealing fresh nuance with each visit.
The issue I have with Everybody Down is that I’m not sure that setting this to music did anything to enhance it. At times, I think it detracts.
The music is fine, in itself. It’s obviously here as housing for the narrative, and as such does little to elevate the experience. It’d be difficult to elevate such a powerful story in any case, but the point still stands. At times, Kae’s delivery is dictated by the music underpinning it, meaning there’s more performance and less poetry. Lines of thought become tricky to follow as Kae conforms to the beats of bass and drum, and the tracks that have a more traditional verse-chorus structure (such as Circles, or even Hammer) feel clunky when the repetition kicks in.
While Kae’s Voice-with-a-V is undoubtedly proud, their voice is perhaps a little understated to carry the musicality required in such a part-poem part-rap part-song project. They’re expressive, and there’s emotion behind their words, but at times I wished I was listening to a more naked performance poem, with zero (or minimal) musical interference. I think I’d rather hear what Kae had to say, than what Kae wanted to sing.
My favourite track is Chicken, which is coincidentally the least encumbered by an instrumental underscore. Overall, I rate Everybody Down as a high 6/10. It started higher, but fell a little as my misgivings revealed themselves. I do think it could climb again with further listens, and I’d happily listen to anything else they wanted to say.