Solange dazes and amazes but Frank Ocean seems in a field of his own at forward-looking festival
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
All eyes are on one man … Frank Ocean is note-perfect at Lovebox; below, Solange