Pop music review: Tinie Tempah
There were few better barometers to gauge the sounds of the previous 365 days than New Year's Eve, on which countless parties across the city featured a range of talent including chart-topping European DJs and obscure, local indie acts. Ironically, though, it was at the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel's Great Gatsby party on Saturday night where partygoers — dressed as if it were the Roaring '20s — had a chance to survey some of the most sweeping sonic trends of 2011.
Perhaps headliner Tinie Tempah best reflects the ever-growing pan-globalization of hip-hop and pop music. He's a 23-year-old London rapper of Nigerian descent who in one year managed to crack the American top 40 and serve as the soundtrack for such red-blooded U.S. institutions as Major League Baseball and Wrestlemania.
The old cliché says you only need one song, and for Tempah, born Patrick Chukwuemeka Okogwu, his “Written in the Stars” catapulted him from a domestic obscurity into the pop elite, and he now collaborates with Wiz Khalifa and Snoop Dogg. It's an impressive trajectory considering that many of his performances on his first tour of the States in May were reportedly in front of only a few dozen people.
“Written in the Stars” wasn't released as an official stateside single until May. In Britain, where he's been a sensation for the last half-decade, the song went straight to No. 1. In America, it peaked at No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 and made him the first British rapper to truly penetrate U.S. audiences.
British rap has been threatening to establish a foothold on U.S. soil since grime breakout stars Dizzee Rascal, the Streets and Lady Sovereign brought their fast-rapped strains of foreign hip-hop here in the middle part of the last decade. But for all their continental stardom and critical acclaim, they failed to earn radio airplay and achieve mass appeal.
But Tempah is a different story. His fusion of rap, pop, dubstep, grime and house resonates with the iPod's era's mishmash of styles. Most important, he has hooks so big he probably could earn airplay on the Fishing Network, appropriating the American penchant for garish pop production and paring it with an accent usually only heard on the London Tube.
On Saturday, Tempah offered a clarion view of the present and perhaps the future during his abbreviated but strong set. An audience of revelers in top hats, tails and foot-long cigarette holders roared as he ushered in the new year with a hit-studded performance containing “Written in the Stars” and “Pass Out.” Thankfully, few took the advice of the latter cut, instead feeding off Tempah's visceral energy and doing a bevy of dance moves that included practically everything but the Charleston.
Though his performance and banter was brief, the leather jacket- and sunglasses-clad Tempah exhibited an affable, kinetic stage presence that illustrated why he is the chosen crossover star. He's clearly been raised on American rap mannerisms and its underground work ethic but has streamlined his style into something that retains a sense of the exotic while filtering in the ideas circulating in the top 40 landscape. And with his latest single, “Miami 2 Ibiza,” which partners him with dance music powerhouse Swedish House Mafia, Tempah seems to have a perfect reading of the current temperature.
Indeed, Tempah wasn't the only one who offered a window into the year that was. The DJ who preceded him played some of 2011's biggest club anthems, including DJ Khaled, Drake and Rick Ross' “I'm One” and Waka Flocka Flame's irrepressible “Grove St. Party,” while the LA Riots performed a set of high-octane house and wobbling dubstep.
Though the bars stopped serving at 2 a.m., partygoers kept going strong in the hotel's Art Deco ballroom, dancing to fast-twitch house music, the sound that operates as the city's preferred dance genre du jour. With the exception of several attendees who tried to out-drink F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (with unfortunate results), most in the crowd seemed to be having the time of their lives. You had to doff your top hat.
Photo: British rapper Tinie Tempah plays the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel on New Year's Eve. Credit: Zhubin Rahbar