Skepta Rebel, Toronto ON, April 26

Skepta Rebel, Toronto ON, April 26
Photo: Rick Clifford

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"Energy! Energy!"
 
The more he says it, the less it's clear whether Skepta's go-to chant is a command to the crowd, a self-motivating pump-up, or merely an observation.
 
For the world the U.K. grime king creates in a soldout club, like Toronto's Rebel on Wednesday night, is a buzzsaw of frenetic vigour. There are no downtempo shifts or moments of reflection at a Skepta show. Just 70 minutes of pulsing, skittering, excellent beats played loud, and crisp couplets spit rapid-fire in a North London lilt.
 
The timing of Skepta's overseas journey could've been better, but it didn't seem to bother the dancing, arm-pumping, smartphone-raising, hook-hollering mob. Or the half-dozen ladies who hopped aboard their fellas' shoulders, bouncing for a better view.
 
North America was supposed to import Skepta's energy a year ago, when his scorching breakthrough LP, Konnichiwa, snatched the coveted 2016 Mercury Prize. That tour was scrapped when the U.S. denied his work visa. "Straight outta London City," Skepta reminded. "That grime shit." Papers now in order, the 34-year-old's polished Banned from America tour hit Coachella and is following with 13 more dates.
 
A confident Skepta commanded the stage in a white T-shirt, white strapback, white trainers and red track pants. He looked like he was on his way to play tennis.
 
Skepta's other passions — he's also a video director and activist — were on full display. Twelve giant video screens served as his backdrop, splashing custom visuals for each track: a rolling circuit of digits for the Pharrell Williams–produced "Numbers"; grainy surveillance camera footage for "Crime Riddim."
 
Best received was the call-and-response of "It Ain't Safe," the rapper's warning shot at aggressive police. A kaleidoscope of red, white and blue lights spun wildly from a large steel ring that lowered from the ceiling above the crowded floor. "It ain't safe on the block!" our host sang. "Not even for the cops!" rang the multitudes. It felt like we were all stuffed inside a police siren, but, you know, in a good way.
 
All music was handled digitally by DJ Maximum. And while the show never slipped the headliner's grasp, Skepta smartly invited guests Lethal Bizzle (for their brand new duet "I Win") and Riff Raff onstage, adding texture to the proceedings. Hypeman Shorty got to squeeze off a couple verses of his own, too. Some older "mixtape shit" was tossed in for the longtime BBK heads, but the set list featured nearly every song on Konnichiwa, his fourth and most refined work.

"Shutdown," "Man" and "Lyrics" soared as crowd-pleasers. And as the partygoers filed outside into the street, a rowdy contingent began their own impassioned mantra, unprompted: "It ain't safe on the block! Not even for the cops!"

Skepta said it best: "The energy come from you lot, still."