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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Ghetts, Roundhouse, review: veteran cements his claims to greateness with the help of some stellar guests

Ghetts is a storyteller at heart. The veteran UK grime artist’s approach has long been defined by its dense lyrical architecture: in his Noughties pirate-radio days, he would impersonate his detractors, rapping: “‘He spits for too long, he’s too technical’ / What you want me to do, empty my mind?” 

His stately third album, 2021’s Mercury-nominated Conflict of Interest, distils his 15-year career in a masterclass of tightly woven narratives. So it was fitting that on Saturday, as he closed out a five-city tour with a sold-out hometown show at London’s 1,700-capacity Roundhouse, Ghetts, real name Justin Clarke, transferred his writerly flourishes directly to the stage.

The show followed a classic three-act structure: warming in with string-laden rap tracks and fizzing grime sprints (Dizzee Rascal, one of many guests on the night, bounded onstage to add his voice to Fire & Brimstone), before leaning back into pop material – with Emeli Sandé for Sonya, and flexing his own untested-but-serviceable singing voice on 10,000 Tears and album stand-out Proud Family. 

His band and string quintet were then replaced by a set of decks helmed by producer-DJ Rude Kid, who blitzed through an old-school grime medley. Fellow London rap kingpins Suspect, Giggs, and Kano strolled on in turn to blow the last splinters from the rafters. 

For the inevitable encore, Ghetts was joined by Stormzy, who declared him, in no uncertain terms, “the greatest that ever was.”

Despite boasting an enviable back catalogue that stretches over more than a decade, Ghetts’s set leaned heavily on tracks from his latest album. It’s a sign of deep confidence in the new material, and one that was reflected in both the elaborate stage design – an enormous combat tank graffiti-tagged with Conflict Of Interest – and the audience’s rapture. With the tank turret his pulpit, Ghetts conducted the crowd throughout. They barely dropped a line all night – no mean feat, given how many lyrics this rapper holds under his hat. 

On Autobiography, a seven-minute epic detailing every twist and tape of Ghetts’s decade-plus career, the crowd matched him bar-for-bar; a bouquet of roses was tossed onto the stage, and Kano – who got his start rapping in the same crew as Ghetts nearly 15 years ago – rose in the wings to pay homage with a charged glass. 

Ghetts is finding new peaks in his powers, but the Roundhouse crowd hadn’t forgotten where he came from: the call-to-arms chorus of Artillery, a consensus classic of grime’s early golden era, was boomed back with all the vim that graced its first airing more than a decade ago.

There’s a line in Autobiography that says, “Before we go, I’m just making sure my story’s told.” With this showing, Ghetts has cemented his claims to greatness – and ensured he won’t be forgotten easily.

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