Speech Debelle, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

3.00

Hip-hop, but not as we know it

A few months ago, Speech Debelle was the best kept secret of label Big Dada, and judging by your own loyalties (or perhaps lack of) to hip-hop music, she was either the genre's great redemption or a welcome distraction from the current reign of urban-pop. Then came the Mercury Prize nomination for her debut album, Speech Therapy, and with that an extra push from Big Dada and a flurry of commendations from critics and social observers alike, all firmly placing their bets on the unassuming south London MC who's now officially crossed over into the next best thing category, thanks to her rags-to-potential-riches story of living in a hostel, cavorting with drug dealers and making it safely to the other side to pursue a music career.

When you pit the 26-year-old up against the few British female rappers who have attempted to charm the mainstream, Speech emerges as the strong-silent type, less concerned with establishing her brand and the various connotations of her chosen occupation than the fem-cees who either pretend to be men-cees or brandish their sexuality with the ferocity of their freshly manicured talons. The biggest difference is that she has yet to be embraced by the very urbanistas who quickly rallied around former Mercury Prize winner Ms Dynamite and Estelle at the heights of their acclaim, and with her recent comment of not being "black enough" to be played on urban station Choice FM still ringing around uncomfortably, it's not surprising then that the bulk of the audience at this free gig are white, some audibly Speech converts, the rest curious spectators. They sit at tables and on the ground, a greater indication that the rapper's music sits neatly in that spoken-word/jazz sub-culture, where appreciation comes in the form on finger-clicks, mmms and ahhs, and the conservative hand clap.

She, on the other hand, is much less high-brow than her audience, and strolls casually onto the stage, wearing stretch jeans, a neon-printed T-shirt, trainers and her corn rowed hairdo half-done – evidence of her tomboyish and nonchalant attitude. She points out some former work colleagues with a humble wave, giggles when she mentions the Mercury accolade and then offers up "Searching" with a subtle prompt, diving into that now familiar intro "2am in my hostel bed, my eyes turned red, my belly ain't fed". Occasionally, she closes her eyes while her mellow three-piece band compliments her squeaky, staccato-driven flow and each of the songs are tacked with a funny anecdote of its origins. But it's when she's caught up in the poetic rhythm of her narratives that she's truly in her element and this is one of her better merits.

Nothing here conforms to a typical hip-hop show – there's no hypeman, no angst and not a whiff of narcissism. The only time she invites audience participation is on the anthemic, "Go Then, Bye", and to her credit, the crowd seem to be too self-conscious to join her in the break-up chant. It's not as if they can't relate.

Besides the hostel testimony, Speech's songs revolve around love and life. On the jovial "Working Weak" you can almost sense the silent high-fives when she sings "everyday, it is the same show, my boss is an a-hole." It's just a pity her playful delivery is occasionally lost in the poor acoustics of the Front Room in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. There are other idiosyncrasies too, such as the tiny lisp that causes her to stumble over some of her lyrics as she speeds through the set list – and when she invites Soweto Kinch on stage to sax along to "Buddy Love", you realise she's yet to completely conquer her shyness. But it's these things that make Speech so refreshingly real, so endearing, so justifiable of the hype – and so obviously a Mercury contender.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there