Finsbury Park, London
In the weeks leading up to Wireless, the line-up looked slightly different every time you checked the website. In the end, Cardi B couldn’t make it due to her pregnancy, the festival announced DJ Khaled’s cancellation on the day citing “travel issues” and then a “scheduling conflict” (hours before, Khaled posted a poolside pic with the caption “Still on vacation!!!!!!!!”). MoStack refused to perform during the England game on Saturday afternoon so switched to the Friday, Trippie Redd and NYC rapper Quay Dash simply disappeared from the bill while Fredo and J Hus’ sets were dropped a few days before the festival due to “unforeseen circumstances”.
During his first ever festival headline set on Saturday, Stormzy pays tribute to J Hus by leading a singalong to a medley of his hits (Hus was recently arrested for suspicion of knife possession, which you could speculate conflicts with the #TimetoStop anti-violence campaign Wireless has been supporting). As he flips between hard-hitting grime and more radio-friendly material, Stormzy lives up to his man-of-the people image, bringing out a kids’ dance group from Manchester for Return of the Rucksack and repeatedly urging the crowd to take pride in UK music instead of fawning over American acts.
But while Migos had effortlessly won over a massive audience (including Madonna, who watched their set from the side of the stage), Stormzy’s energy doesn’t always travel right to the back of the crowd. His celebrity status is slightly bigger than his material at this stage, and this isn’t quite the career-defining moment it was supposed to be.
Although the event quickly sold out, Wireless caused controversy online due to an appalling lack of women on the line-up (including Cardi B, there were initially only three performing across the entire weekend). This promoted the organisers to eventually book the Smirnoff House stage, which is hosted by Julie Adenuga, promoted by Rinse FM and features an all-women line-up. With DJs such as Emerald and the Girls of Grime collective playing inside the shed-like structure, the stage is a laidback space away from the rest of the intensity. With good-humoured dance-offs frequently breaking out, at one point a middle-aged woman attracts a cheering crowd as she shows off her impressive skills. “Shout out to aunties,” Adenuga says. “Aunties are the unsung heroes.”
Over at the main stage, it’s probably fair to say the absence of women on the line-up leads to a testosterone overload despite what seems to be an almost equal gender ratio in the crowd. Playboi Carti, Lil Uzi Vert and Rae Sremmurd shun conventional machismo with their respective sounds – bringing pretty, featherweight melodies and sugary pop-punk into trap beats – and flamboyant outfits, but they all demand that the crowd open up huge moshpits for nearly every track, which is particularly exhausting in the 30 degree heat. At first Uzi’s bravado is exciting, as he tells he crowd that “anyone who hasn’t been to my shows before, you need to know you’re basically here because you missed the rapture. You’re going to hell with me.” But when he complains that the crowd aren’t hyped enough despite the fact that he’s taken his Dior t-shirt off, it’s hard to feel impressed.
And while Carti, Uzi and Rae Sremmurd are bursting with charisma – Carti, in particular, exudes rockstar swagger with his baggy plaid shirt hanging over a Sex Pistols vest – this generation of artists has arguably set the bar low in terms of mic technique, largely abandoning the responsibility to actually spit or sing their parts and instead act as hypemen while the DJ plays their songs. By contrast, Rick Ross comes across like a bastion of old school professionalism by rapping all of his lyrics with no backing track.
Later on, Giggs is a class act, digging into his arsenal of road rap bangers like Talking the Hardest, Look What the Cat Dragged In and Whippin’ Excursion with an excited grin on his face, and bringing out Dave for his slick verse on Peligro. When OVO affiliate Baka Not Nice joins Giggs on stage, it feels like the rumours are finally confirmed: Drake is performing tonight.
Once Giggs leaves the stage, a banner drops bearing the OVO owl with a Union Jack pattern on its wing, and Drake sprints on stage to the intense strings of KMT, instigating a staggering sense of euphoria. Taking the baton from Giggs, Drake tells the crowd he’s interrupted his holiday to be here, framing his six-song set as a spontaneous favour to his UK fans. He runs though the Scorpion highlights, climaxing with feel-good anthem God’s Plan and leaves fans pining for more. It’s an intense, unpolished finale to an energetic, chaotic festival. If the Wireless team can make more of an effort to rectify the gender imbalance on the line-up and be more transparent with the punters who’ve parted with their hard-earned cash to attend, then it will deserve its status as one of the most exciting music festivals in the UK.