At the close of a year that brought us Iggy Azalea’s offensive accent and that off-putting spoken-word part of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” the world of white female rap can feel especially tasteless. But Kate Tempest, while less well known than her tone-deaf sisters Azalea and Swift, is a welcome exception. And her debut solo album—nominated for the Mercury award this fall, and now beginning to crop up on year-end lists—is both a clear-eyed look at how a generation of young people are coping with a recession that has destroyed their prospects. It’s also one of the best records of the year.
Kate Tempest is simply a formidably talented young woman—outside of music, she writes plays, has won the Ted Hughes Award for her poetry, and was selected as one of 2014’s Next Generation Poets, an honor only bestowed once every ten years—who has been rapping since the age of sixteen. She is not, I don’t think, a thief or a fraud. She doesn’t play up the “isn’t it cute and quirky for a white woman to know what rap is” angle. She’s someone who loves the art form, and it shows in her album.
Everybody Down (Big Dada Recordings) is constructed in the form of one long, sprawling narrative, so it’s worthwhile to pause here and relay its plot. The story centers around a love triangle between a young, idealistic woman named Becky, an attractive yet temperamental young man named Pete, and his socially awkward, lonely brother Harry. Harry loves Becky, Becky loves Pete, and Pete loves Becky. Becky doesn’t know that Pete is Harry’s brother. Pete doesn’t know that Harry is in love with his girlfriend. And no one has any idea what Harry does for a living, except for Becky, in whom Harry drunkenly confided his big secret the night they met. Things get very complicated, very quickly, with an efficiency that is downright Shakespearean.
But to focus on the interpersonal details is to miss the point. This is an album about work; it’s about what each of these characters does, or doesn’t do, to earn a living, and how this work screws up their lives. Harry is a cocaine dealer who’s been dressing up in suits and telling his family he “works in recruitment,” and he lays bare the economic landscape in the first song:
I sell to the boardrooms and not the boozers
to like, CEOs and these modern day Scrooges
who get their secretaries to bring me coffee, it’s so stupid.
Meant to be hard times, right, a recession?
But these guys are buying more than ever, I reckon.
That recession, and the elite who manage to thrive despite it, define the rest of the album. Becky lives by trading on the capital of being young and female. She’s going to college, but in the real world, her body is the only thing she’s got. So she dances in music videos. She’s a waitress. She strips. And she gives private massages, of the sort that only end in one way. The album is refreshingly and wholly feminist on this point: Becky is a sex worker, and she’s fine with it, and the people in her life who aren’t fine with it (like Pete) are the problem. Becky, too, is in the business of servicing the “Scrooges,” and she’s pretty clear about what sort of service she considers truly degrading:
She don’t wanna do it forever, but let’s face it
wages are fucked and rent is outrageous…
Better than slaving away in an office
or killing herself to fill some boss’s pockets
working for peanuts and making them conkers.
And at least she’s not Pete. Poor, poor Pete, who stays unemployed throughout the album, precisely because he is the only character who refuses to earn a living through extra-legal means. One of the album’s most stinging bits of wit comes when Pete is sitting in the unemployment office, receiving some career counseling:
“Now, have you thought about retail?” “Yes, fine with me.”
“Oh, and I can see here that you have a degree.”
“Uh, yes,” says Pete, “in International Relations.”
“Great! Let’s see if Primark has space for a placement!”
Primark, in case you were wondering, is a cheap clothes chain in the UK. This is the landscape these young people live in: wealth undeniably exists, and defines their lives, but it’s not for them. A steady, fulfilling job is a nice thing to dream about, but it’s not coming. But in the meantime, the elite still need their little pleasures—a bag of cocaine, some new clothes, a pretty girl—and it is possible to survive these hard times by making their lives easier. The fact that two of these kids stand to be jailed for giving the wealthy what they want, and the other can’t get paid because he won’t give it to them…well, that injustice, and all of the album’s endless pain and drama caused by who’s doing what for money, is what inequality looks like on the ground.
That’s exactly what Tempest wants: to get everybody down, on that ground, so that we can see what it all looks like. She doesn’t preach; she doesn’t give lectures. She only asks you to care about these young people, to recognize how ridiculously hard and painful it is for any of them to get by. If we do this—that is, if we can stop thinking of Harry as a criminal, Becky as a slut, and Pete as a loser, if we can see the people under the stereotypes—then the album succeeds.
This isn’t careless privilege being thrown around. This isn’t someone clumsily exploiting an art form to get a paycheck. It’s empathy, which is the basis of all social justice, and of all great art. And Everybody Down is great—almost great enough to make you forget about Iggy and Taylor.