Solange dazes and amazes but Frank Ocean seems in a field of his own at for­ward-look­ing fes­ti­val

The Guardian - - JOURNAL THE CRITICS - Chal Ravens

Pop Love­box Vic­to­ria Park, Lon­don

Love­box has al­ways been a fes­ti­val for the pop om­ni­vore, a glit­ter-speck­led mish­mash for week­end he­do­nists and fancy-dressers. But this year’s edi­tion felt dis­tinctly seg­re­gated, and not just be­cause of the VIP loos (ac­ces­si­ble with a £15 wrist­band). Both days were nos­tal­gia-free events, with a fo­cus on new rather than her­itage acts, yet the cu­ra­tion led to a dras­tic front-load­ing of ex­pec­ta­tions, with all eyes and ears wait­ing for one man.

Frank Ocean’s Fri­day night head­line slot was the sub­ject of anx­ious an­tic­i­pa­tion, fol­low­ing a spate of fes­ti­val no-shows from the R&B recluse. For many of his fans – and they are le­gion and ob­ses­sive – tonight marks their first live en­counter with Ocean. The hard­core queue for hours to buy one­off screen­printed T-shirts com­mem­o­rat­ing the oc­ca­sion. When he fi­nally ap­pears, 25 min­utes late, he con­fines him­self to a tiny plat­form jut­ting into the crowd, a setup both in­ti­mate and iso­lat­ing. Kick­ing off with Solo, from last year’s al­bum Blonde, and Chanel, the singer skulks around his desert is­land ac­com­pa­nied by a min­i­mal back­ing band, plac­ing his vo­cals – quiv­er­ing, note-per­fect – rightly to the fore. He is dwarfed by three video screens be­hind him, re­lay­ing cam­corder-style vi­su­als cap­tured by a rov­ing cam­era­man who turns out to be Spike Jonze (the di­rec­tor is ru­moured to be film­ing a tour doc­u­men­tary).

The set draws mostly from Blonde, with just one track from Ocean’s 2012 de­but Chan­nel Or­ange – the sparse and sweet Thinkin Bout You. There’s cer­tainly a logic to the low-key, un­ortho­dox pre­sen­ta­tion: af­ter the four-year wait, Blonde turned out to be a skele­tal, frag­ile thing com­pared to the slick, struc­tured pop of its pre­de­ces­sor. For some, it’s frus­trat­ing – views are ob­scured and the sound isn’t quite right – but the mood of spon­tane­ity and down­right weird­ness is a good fit for this enig­matic char­ac­ter.

Op­po­site in ev­ery way to Frank’s slip­pery navel-gaz­ing is a stand­out set by Solange, who, af­ter re­leas­ing one of 2016’s best al­bums, A Seat at the Ta­ble, is spend­ing 2017 tour­ing an equally ex­em­plary live show. In con­trast to Ocean’s dis­ap­pear­ing act, the younger Knowles sis­ter chooses to mag­nify her­self, fold­ing her whole band into the act in a Prince-like feat of pre­ci­sion chore­og­ra­phy and com­mu­nal el­e­va­tion. Bat­tling ill­ness and a cramped stage, she per­forms most of A Seat at the Ta­ble, bring­ing Sam­pha on stage for Don’t Touch My Hair. She tack­les thorny sub­ject mat­ter with pa­tience and poise. Dur­ing F.U.B.U. she makes a bee­line for a group of black fans, ser­e­nad­ing them with an an­them for self-love that ex­plic­itly in­structs white lis­ten­ers not to be “mad if you can’t sing along”. It’s a per­for­mance that rests on a knifeedge, and she leaves the swelling crowd dazed and amazed.

The af­ter­noon’s scorch­ing weather is the ideal back­drop for the neo-soul niceties of Ray BLK, whose stun­ning voice is ren­dered bland by a lack of se­ri­ous ma­te­rial. Sin­gles Chill Out and My Hood sound smooth in the sun­shine, but a too faith­ful cover of the Fugees’ take on Killing Me Softly makes her seem timid. Kay­tranada at­tracts a huge crowd for a set of laid-back hip-hop beats heav­ily in­debted to J Dilla; there’s no rein­ven­tion of the wheel, but it’s a mood-lift­ing fes­ti­val sound­track.

The skies darken as day two be­gins, which is ap­pro­pri­ate given the Lon­don­cen­tric vibe of Satur­day’s lineup. With Chase and Sta­tus head­lin­ing again (they last had the honour in 2014), it’s one of the least flashy Love­box bills in years. The fo­cus is on home­grown ta­lent, and many acts are barely older than the mostly col­lege-age crowd.

In the Noisey tent, the day is given over to the UK’s new gen­er­a­tion of MCs, led by XL’s New Gen project, a la­bel backed al­bum show­case of artists at the in­ter­sec­tion of trap, drill, grime and R&B. Hype lev­els are max­imised with a rapid turn­around of fresh faces, each drop­ping three or four tracks be­fore be­ing re­placed with an­other young MC bring­ing mosh­pits and mas­sive drops. Belly Squad and 67 get the big­gest re­cep­tion, as mea­sured by the num­ber of cam­er­a­phones held aloft dur­ing street hits such as Gangland and Look How Life’s Changed.

The Fab­ric stage has a steady con­veyor belt of 4/4 beats over the two days, of­fer­ing beefy, blokey house and techno from big-ticket DJs such as Dixon and Bi­cep, but Ri­cardo Vil­lalo­bos light­ens the mood with a fes­ti­val friendly mix of wonky bangers and Frankie Goes to Hol­ly­wood ed­its.

An­tic­i­pa­tion for Chase and Sta­tus is muted, per­haps be­cause of the crowd’s over-fa­mil­iar­ity with th­ese fes­ti­val hard­ened head­lin­ers. That doesn’t stop the drum’n’bass ti­tans from bring­ing ev­ery­thing they’ve got to this clos­ing bo­nanza – smoke can­nons, flamethrow­ers, lasers and a raft of spe­cial guests both on the video screens (Pusha T) and in per­son (Kano, Emeli Sandé). But with the out­side world promis­ing af­ter par­ties and af­ford­able booze, it’s a muted end­ing when com­pared to Fri­day’s show­stop­pers.

The mood of spon­tane­ity and down­right weird­ness is a good fit for this enig­matic per­former

Pho­to­graphs PJP pho­tos/Rex Shutterstock

All eyes are on one man … Frank Ocean is note-per­fect at Love­box; be­low, Solange

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