If you’ve ever wondered what Kae Tempest would sound like if they’d been a performer in a 1920s jazz bar, then you should have a listen to ‘These Are The Days’, the song that kicks off the second half of their latest album The Line Is A Curve. As lyrics that focus on making the most of what you have today, a key Tempest tenet, the sounds of French horn, cornet, and tuba create an increasingly claustrophobic cacophony that puts me in mind of a dark room, couples holding hands at candlelit tables, men in fedoras, women in ball gowns. And just three songs later, with an inspiring chorus of ‘move, I’ll fight you till I win’, we have the closest thing to a club banger that Kae has released so far. Next to these, there are album highlights such as ‘More Pressure’ (with Kevin Abstract) and ‘Nothing To Prove’ that are the most pure Hip-Hop songs on any of Kae’s four albums so far, no longer blurring the lines between rap and spoken word.
All of that is a pretty long-winded way of saying that this is Kae Tempest’s most musically diverse album so far. It is the first time they have leaned on so many influences, allowing themselves to put something out that isn’t tied as closely to ‘concept’ in the way that all of the other albums have been. At the end of the impassioned chorus of first single ‘More Pressure’ Kae asks the listener to ‘Let Me Let Go’, and it really does seem that they have let go here – they feel less constricted, freer. For some listeners, those who have grown used to Kae’s pointed concepts and poignant calls for community and care, this freer sound might be a bit offputting at first. For me, it is an absolute joy to see them putting out music that brims with such belief and confidence.
It’s hard to ignore that this is the first album that Kae has released since sharing with the world that they identify as non-binary. It might be a stretch to say that this process of coming to terms with and sharing their identity with the world has freed them up in their music as well as their life, but there are hints that this is how they feel on songs such as ‘I Saw Light’: ‘Heart is a yellowing brick/Dead set on a wish that can never exist/A transition/I want to be is but I’m isn’t.’ These lyrics seem to look back at Kae’s process of coming to terms with their true self, and the album’s focus on freedom, acceptance, and confidence shows them coming out of the other side.
Evidence that this increased self-belief has seeped into their music can be found in the presence of the guests on A Line Is A Curve. While on the majority of their previous releases Kae was the sole performer on most songs, across this latest work they don’t only bring in big name guests but they also let them have starring roles and take some of the key moments on the album. Grian Chatten has a stonking spoken-word verse on ‘I Saw Light’, Lianne La Havas’s vocals make ‘No Prizes’ a thing of pure beauty, Confucius MC takes ‘Smoking’ to a new level after a purposefully subdued verse from Kae, and Kevin Abstract is encouraged to hammer home the message at the end of ‘More Pressure.’
All of that said, it is Kae on their own who gives us the absolute standout moment. On every album they release there is at least one song that towers above everything else and makes itself the centrepiece and this time it is the hypnotic, mesmerising, and beautiful ‘Salt Coast.’ For everything I’ve said about new influences and more musical variety on this album, ‘Salt Coast’ is here to remind us that Kae is a poet at heart – it’s a lyrical masterclass, an inspiring story, an incredible moment of truth, another time when Kae chooses to tell us to try our best and accept when things go wrong. All of this over one of the most carefully constructed beats of their career, each key change making the hairs on your arms stand up. It’s a few minutes of magic that sits in the middle of probably the most exciting album Kae has released so far. It’ll take a lot for them (or anyone) to release an album that means as much to me as Let Them Eat Chaos, but in terms of pushing themselves forward and continuing to grow – A Line Is A Curve is perfection.
Words by Fran Slater
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