Experimental and achingly personal: the modern poet’s new album is a revelation
BY MILLICENT MACHELL
“To be known and loved/ It’s so disgusting man, I’ve had enough” announces the first song on Kae Tempest’s new album. And yet this is exactly what The Line Is A Curve invites us to do. Each song is a crushingly intimate insight into the lyrical mind that is Kae Tempest. After 12 meticulously clever tracks, you can’t help but feel you know them, and love them a little too.
This is the London-born artist’s fourth solo album and they have – as one of the songs is titled – Nothing To Prove. Often hailed as a generational talent, Kae has two Mercury Prize nominations and a Brit Award under their belt, as well as an array of prestigious recognitions for their poetry. And yet, they certainly haven’t become complacent in success.
Kae’s new music is more vivid and layered than ever before. Their signature blend between modern rap and spoken-word poetry is delivered with an unparalleled sense of rhythm and emotive instrumentals. Really, it’s an album to savour.
The opening song, Priority Boredom, sets the tone. The video-game feel to the instrumental demonstrates Kae’s musings about modern life online. Their lyrics veer between clinical (“You come alive online, you die a couple times/ It’s fine. Plug in the other drive”) and unnervingly physical (“a pound of wet flesh/ Ground down by distortion”).
Despite Kae’s refusal to be boxed in by any one style, there is a strong rap influence in this album’s sound. Nothing to Prove and More Pressure have all the quick-spit lyrics and restless beat you’d expect from the genre. The latter song’s 80s-esque dance backing track is a switch up from the rest of the album, as is Kevin Abstract’s featuring verse. The futuristic style of the music video is definitely worth a watch, too.
The album also holds more purely poetic numbers like I Saw Light, featuring the Irish frontman of Fontaines D.C., Grian Chatten. The song has a kind of resigned urgency, telling of Kae’s anxiety-fuelled ambition (“Ambition kicks me awake and says, dress”) and culminates in a catchy refrain.
Kae’s closing song, Grace, also shifts away from rap and towards spoken-word, using tender guitar notes under the painful lyrics. It sounds half like a love letter and half like a prayer. Kae’s incantation – “Let me be love/ Let me be loving/ Let me give love/ Receive love/ And be nothing but love.” – reveals less political themes of heartbreak and claustrophobic devotion.
The album is made up of notable songs – the narrative No Prizes featuring Lianne La Havas, the self-destructive crescendo of These Are the Days or even the nostalgic lyrics of Smoking which examines Kae’s childhood relationship with their gender (“I want to go back/ Take the child who destroyed/ Every inch of herself to be/ One of the boys”).
However, the most striking to me was Don’t You Ever, which blends Kae’s London accent seamlessly alongside a vocalist on the chorus. Her poetry tells of the way that co-dependent relationships stagnate, one party’s independence (“You say love me, don’t need me”) contrasting the other’s adoring dedication (“The urge to merge was huge/ I don’t know when it became, I just want what you want/ But I closed my eyes, subdued and I went deep”).
It’s this sense of contrast that really holds the album together: ancient and modern, urban impotence and natural power, melody and poetry, feminine and masculine. Kae never tries to reconcile contradictions, just sets them side-by-side and makes something beautiful.
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