Kano review – brash and brilliant block party from Top Boy of UK rap

Early on in this broiling and boisterous gig, Kane “Kano” Robinson emerges from a maelstrom of strobe lights to make his first proper address to the audience: “Hey Glasgow, welcome to my city!” From any other artist, it might sound like a cocky conquerer’s boast. But East Ham’s most prominent MC and sometime actor is just reiterating the refrain of Good Youtes Walk Amongst Evil, his impassioned 2019 snapshot of London’s soul-crushing inner-city pressures. Live, it sounds like an alarm-raising documentary, one soundtracked by skittering hi-hats and plaintive tubular bells.

It is just the latest distillation of Kano’s fractious praxis. When he first came to prominence as part of grime’s initial surge in the early 2000s, he combined clear-eyed street-level reportage with crafty bursts of badinage: here was a fluid storyteller able to match the brashest beats.

Now 15 years after his breakthrough track P’s and Q’s – which gets a rowdy outing tonight – everything suddenly seems to be snapping into focus. Last month, Kano released both a new record (his soulful sixth album, Hoodies All Summer) and a new TV series (season three of Top Boy, the Channel 4 gang drama belatedly revived by Netflix, in which he convincingly plays wary dealer Sully). And on Monday night, the 34-year-old will headline London’s Royal Albert Hall for a sold-out show. Technically it is a home town gig, but philosophically it must feel like a long way from his E10 roots.

Impressive rigour ... Kano performing at the Old Fruitmarket in Glasgow.

Theatrical flourishes … Kano performing at the Old Fruitmarket in Glasgow. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/the Guardian

His venue in Glasgow might be a little cosier but Kano still supplies plenty of theatrical flourishes. His backing band consists of two DJs wrangling samples and triggering crunchy waveforms alongside a meticulous live drummer and a keyboard player, but there are reinforcements in the wings.

On new song Trouble, where Kano persuasively makes the case for de-escalating the “postcode wars” of gang violence, he is joined by a heavenly five-piece choir, who glide in and out for the rest of the set as required. There is also a roaming trio of trombonists, one of whom periodically switches to a jolly sousaphone, its shiny elevated bell catching the stage lights like a disco ball.

When the whole extended troupe come together for This Is England, Kano’s vivid but rueful state-of-the-nation sketch from his Mercury-nominated 2016 album, Made in the Manor, it feels more like a lush block party than a stripped-back grime gig, and it gets one of the biggest room reactions of the night. Later, during the sparse, chiming breakdowns of A Roadman’s Hymn, he conducts the audience in a surprisingly sweet singalong of the line: “I ain’t saying that they never fucked up.” After an ear-ringing run through new song SYM (which starts off with a cheeky gospel chorus of “suck your mum” before mutating into an angry assault of crashing drums), Kano returns for an encore filled with even more hooligan energy. The parping brass riff of 3 Wheels Up is insistent enough to create an enthusiastic moshpit, although he chooses to close with the rather more mellow dancehall of My Sound, a rather more soothing wind-down.

It is a performance of impressive rigour – after 90 minutes, Kano has rattled through reams of pointed lyrics with absolute precision – and affable swagger. The Royal Albert Hall may need some structural reinforcing.

At Albert Hall, Manchester, 4 October, then touring.


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