Kojey Radical is among Britain’s sharpest rappers – but is he losing his bite?
Kojey Radical broke the ice at his set in Hoxton’s XOYO nightclub by referencing his recent Brit Awards nomination, instantly endearing himself to the intimate crowd. “‘I don’t want to say it too loudly because it still feels fake,” he half-joked, looking like an extra from Miami Vice thanks to an outfit of silk trousers, gold chain, and a white crocheted vest top. “They might take it away!”
This humble positioning is central to the rising artist’s appeal. In recent years, Kojey has transitioned from raw jazz rap poet, shining a light on the pitfalls of gentrification and Black teenagers being groomed into drug gangs, to the polished lothario we see today, thrusting his hips like he’s grinding on an invisible lover and getting XOYO’s crowd dancing raucously.
Last year’s sunny Reason to Smile, Radical’s long-awaited debut on a major label, was designed to rubber-stamp him as a mainstream star, and tonight is full of signs that it succeeded. The artist, born to Ghanaian immigrant parents, glides across the stage while performing Nappy, an obvious highlight that takes the sting out of racial stereotypes (“Maybe my hair too nappy, my lips too big / my nose too wide, my d—k too big”) by pairing them with mischievous, bouncy horns.
Together, with its joyful Isley Brothers-inspired synths, pulls off a similar feat, as Kojey ponders the idea of Black artists being exploited by dodgy record contracts and attempts a revolution via the sweaty dance floor. While so many of his miming UK rap peers – especially within the drill space – seem to struggle to perform live without a backing track, Kojey Radical deserves enormous credit for delivering breathless, socially conscious lyrics on the fly.
But the music can also sometimes feel a little too Kendrick Lamar-lite. Kojey’s bluntness from his underground days has been dialled down to make way for radio-friendly hooks and Californian bass lines as though pastiching 70s funk legend Bootsy Collins.
By positioning Kojey Radical as a beacon of positivity, Atlantic Records risks minimising the fearlessness and pan-africanism of their outspoken star, and the disco-ball energy of the new material doesn’t always match the artist’s cutting social observations, such as the provocative line: “There’s nothing more dangerous than a black man with intelligence.”
If the artist wants to truly live up to his namesake then by studio album number two he’ll need to show more bite and create songs that fit with the ugliness of food-bank Britain. This show provides plenty of reasons to smile and will surely be a favourite during this summer’s festival season, but a few more risks must be taken sonically if Kojey Radical is to progress from very good to unmissable.
Kojey Radical performed as part of BRITs week presented by Mastercard for War Child, the charity for children affected by conflict