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Wireless Festival 2013

16 July 2013, 17:53 | Written by The Line of Best Fit

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Photograph by Andrew Whitton

Moving London’s Wireless Festival from West to East was a move that, in retrospect, seems perfectly fitting to the line-up’s M.O. – a range of pop, hip-hop and R&B that straddles the space between the chart dominating and the artistically credible.

It is, after all, something of a coup to secure headliners as all conquering as Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z for the first two days, and then also pair them up for the final event and have that sit harmoniously alongside some of 2013′s smaller successes like Mikky Ekko, Miguel and Flume.

Occupying a space akin to an asphalt-heavy, alternate setting for the Teletubbies, the Olympic site proved a utilitarian match for such an event – if not quite the kind of surroundings one might hope to lose themselves in. And while there were some tragic lows to the weekend – the kind that are becoming an all-too-regular occurrence at events of this type and scale in the UK – the event seemed largely free of the cynicism that often blight similar undertakings. Or at least, so say our intrepid reporters who tackled a day each to bring you the weekend’s highlights.

Friday

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Photograph by Jessica Gilbert

While the opening night at Wireless saw Justin Timberlake re-assert his natural showmanship and music credentials, the night belonged, in no small part, to Frank Ocean.

The 25-year old from New Orleans has had one of music’s most inspiring journeys so far this decade. Coming out of a two year period that begin with him cast at the anomaly of the OFWGKTA collective and ended with him a star of an entirely different league, Ocean’s rise to both critical and commercial acclaim has been steady, assured and without flaw.

His solo shows in London last week sold out quickly but were testament to an already won-over fan base who’d bought into Ocean wholesale. The challenge of Wireless – effectively playing support to the ubiquitous Timberlake – was whether the inverted sensitivity of Channel Orange could both translate and connect to a more centre-than-left pop audience. It’s a challenge visible on Ocean’s face at the start of his set, when the tent spills out 20 people deep and the first beats of new track ‘California’ kick in. Thereafter, Ocean’s composure reflects the humility of the circumstances he finds himself in: playing to several thousand people – a festival crowd, no less – who know, and hang on, almost every single word of every single song. With a face lit by adoration and appreciation, the shy singer’s set – a soundtrack to the setting sun – sees him re-conquer and re-assert.

Claiming his own small success of sorts, Flume’s set clashed entirely with Ocean’s and suffered a crowd shortage by being in a tent just a matter of metres away. The young producer’s audience was largely made up of a hundred or so of his fellow countrymen and a few blissed out folk who couldn’t quite get through the fortified crowd next door. Wireless isn’t really the place to win over new fans in such a situation but there was no lack of commitment from the stage, with Harley Streten’s standout album, released earlier this year, expertly deconstructed with no evidence of demotivation.

Of course, Justin Timberlake was hardly going to disappoint and had little to prove as most seem out here out just for him. To the rest of us – wary perhaps of a re-emergence after such a long absence – all concerns are dealt with. The crossover appeal of JT has been always been carefully handled, largely through the combination of some well chosen alliances and an unquestionable talent for absorbing influence into natural ability. Timberlake is extraordinary, that’s true – he’s mastered the entertainer role in a way someone like Robbie Williams never could and that’s a credit to JT’s approach to ego and celebrity. Supported by a 15-piece band, he’s both a humble showman and the centre of attention – and while that showmanship may at times be bloated at the edges, there’s really little to fault in these surroundings. Words by Paul Bridgewater.

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Saturday

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Photograph by Derek Bremner

“How many drinks would it take you all to leave with me? Three? Four, maybe?” asks Miguel from Saturday’s main stage, draping his torso over a speaker stack and staring leerily into the front row of the adoring front row. The 27-year-old’s narcotised productions, full of sleaze-dripped falsetto hooks and nods to ‘90s soul, earned him a Grammy award for Best Song (‘Adorn’) last year, but till now he’s yet to win the widespread recognition from UK audiences he receives Stateside. There’s a sense though that this weekend could be a tipping point for the star on these shores. Bounding on stage for his second performance of the weekend, he makes light work of the rising temperatures in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to deliver a slick spectacle of contemporary R&B. What he lacks in innuendo, with subtlety-starved tracks like ‘Do You Like Drugs?’ and ‘Pussy is Mine’, he makes up for in boyish charisma and the crystalline ‘Adorn’, a song as deliriously dew-eyed and sweet as it is danceable.

By the time Kendrick Lamar strides on next for one of the most anticipated sets of the weekend, a crowd stretching back for what seems miles has swarmed towards the main stage. And rightly so – last year’s good kid m.A.A.d city was modern hip-hop at its most poignant and electric, a story of sin and soul-purging in the suburbs that was hailed as an instant classic. Today he brings it to life with all the vigour and hustling energy that made it one of 2013’s most essential listens. The hard trap of ‘Backseat Freestyle’ launches the audience into a chaotic bounce, as does recent single ‘Swimming Pools (Drank)’. It’s the kush-cloud chill of album standout ‘Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe’ that wins the biggest cheers, though. “I got to thank you all, London,” he says, before bowing out to the dark echoes of ‘m.A.A.D city’. The pleasure, Kendrick, was all ours.

If only the same could be said about headliner Jay-Z, here in support of much maligned new album Magna Carta… Holy Grail (“number one in 59 countries but most importantly, my first in England,” he points out). Where his Watch the Throne sparring partner Kanye West has spent the two years since their collaboration becoming one of the most volatile and thrillingly unpredictable forces in contemporary music, let alone rap, Hov has become safer in his musical output. Tracks like ‘Tom Ford’ sound no more alive than on record this evening, with classic cuts like ‘Izzo’ and ’99 Problems’ – once such a powerful sucker punch of cranked guitars and racial angst – reduced to limp sighs. ‘Empire State of Mind’ wins the warming sing-along it deserves, but elsewhere, not even a cameo from Justin Timberlake on ‘Holy Grail’ is not enough to stem the impression that Jay, who barely breaks a sweat, stopped seeing fans as ‘fans’ but as ‘consumers’ somewhere along the line. Effortless – and not in the good sense. Words by Roy Hankson.

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Sunday

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Photograph by Jessica Gilbert

Sunday begins with another wander towards the Olympic Park from Stratford station, through the soulless hellhole of the Westfield Shopping Centre, soundtracked by the distant thud of Jessie Ware emanating from the super mall’s tannoy system.

Upon arrival at the venue, the fact that the very same tune – ‘Wildest Moments’ – was being delivered in a manner that was soulful in abundance perfectly encapsulates Ware’s potentially boundless appeal. Her detractors might balk at the idea that her music actually works pretty well when wandering from Pizza Express to Primark to John Lewis, but to witness her belt it out live, standing tall on a bill that contains some of the most respected names in hip hop and pop music both edgy and mainstream, is an exercise in leaving such concerns behind. Jessie Ware’s music, it seems, fits whatever one’s mood might be – and given that people’s only concern seemed to be where their next cider was coming from, she went down a veritable storm.

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Photograph by Andrew Whitton

A$AP Rocky takes a very different path towards this crowd’s adoration, but reaches it nonetheless. For a show that’s highly aggressive and all about one man, it seems to be an oddly communal experience for the dedicated throng of waving their hands in the air like they just don’t care-rs who’ve made it down to the front. For his best tunes, it’s easy to get carried away (as fucking foul as ‘Fuckin’ Problem’ is, it’s also fucking brilliant, and ‘Peso’ reminds us that Rocky’s just as imposing a presence when the BPM’s turned down slow), but the likes of the Skrillex-produced ‘Wild For The Night’ come across as mere bombast without substance. He’s not quite ‘there’, yet. But he’s probably on his way.

The distance Rocky has yet to travel is made abundantly clear by the arrival of Nas, whose mastery of the mic is considerably nuanced than that of the younger challenger. Everything that’s lacking in A$AP’s set – namely any kind of humility, or soul, or playfulness – Nas can dip in to at will, and while you don’t get the idea that he himself thinks he’s anything other than the best rapper on the bill, such egoism is backed up ably by the quality of his tunes. Whilst one suspects Nas could have a good old bash at a beat like A$AP’s ‘Fuckin’ Problem’, Rocky would make a total hash of a tune as subtle as ‘The World Is Yours’, which, for a moment, rockets to the top of the ‘best songs we’ve heard all day’ list.

The charm of A Tribe Called Quest comes into play, meaning they are by far the least aggressively self promotional of any of the hip hop bands on today’s bill. Their logo, for one thing, is displayed in letters so small that even those down the front have to squint to read it. But it is undoubtedly them, bounding around the stage with all of the glee and energy that informs their finest songs. The first – and as it would turn out, only – band on the main stage to be called back for an encore, everyone seems to be enjoying it so much that they wouldn’t have complained too loudly even if they hadn’t bothered coming back on for ‘Can I Kick It?’. However, in doing so they made sure that endorphin levels were at optimum level for the arrival of whatever the hell was coming next.

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Photograph by Derek Bremner

Legends Of The Summer. Legends Of The Bloody Summer! I’m not sure whether it’s the audacity or naffness of it that I like most. In choosing it as their title, Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake had a fan in me from the start, but in all honesty, I thought I would be enjoying this on a more ironic level than the one I ended up inhabiting; one of being wowed at the skill of it all, dazzled by the showmanship, and totally swept away on the sheer number of all time classic songs this pair have at their disposal.

Apart from the slight misstep of an opener (the collaborative ‘Holy Grail’ being one of the weaker songs in either’s back catalogue), it was the most weirdly frontloaded set one could imagine, with ’99 Problems’, ‘Like I Love You’, ‘Rock Your Body’ and a medley of The Jackson 5’s ‘I Want You Back’ and ‘H To The Izzo’ being dismissed by the surprisingly well-suited pair and their magical band all before night’s even threatened to fall. It works, though; everyone’s totally on side even through the slight mid set lull of newer tunes, and come the arrival of a final third that has Rihanna (bloody Rihanna!) guesting on ‘Run The World’ without it even being the highlight (that was an exquisite ‘Empire State Of Mind’), everyone’s as astonished as they are sunburnt. Words by Thomas Hannan.

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