Such is staked on Asake’s return to London tonight. Outside, police approach attendees asking if they attended the Nigerian Afrobeats superstar’s show in Brixton last December, where a crush killed two people, Gaby Hutchinson and Rebecca Ikumelo, and if they would be prepared to give evidence. It’s a confronting reminder that the events of that night are still subject to an ongoing investigation. The wisdom of an arguably premature return to London already in question, it’s in Asake’s interests to be sensitive and deliver on the back of his acclaimed new album, the texturally rich, hook-laden Work of Art.
But the show is immediately mired by his lateness, a full 90 minutes after he was due on stage, leaving him just 35 minutes until curfew. There is speculation that this is due to concerns over crowd control outside the venue. (On a livestream of the gig, Asake says: “Safety is my top priority tonight.”) When the show does begin, it starts with a tribute to Hutchinson and Ikumelo: actors dressed in white flood the stage, Aina More gives a spoken-word performance detailing the events in December and news footage plays in the background. It merges into an appeal by the Metropolitan police, and feels cold and artless: Ikumelo’s sister has since said that Asake has not kept in touch with her family, despite using her personal videos in his show. It feels especially ridiculous when Asake finally arrives into the arena on a camouflage helicopter that descends with painful slowness.
The show’s execution indicates an artist unprepared for a venue the size of the O2, even though it’s sold out. The force of Asake’s discography and his dexterous voice are his saving grace. There’s a triumphant run of songs in Organise, Sunmomi and Dupe, and his band the Compozers bring out the elaborate rhythms of his tracks, especially the saxophone-led fuji-inspired grooves. But his energy seems to spark then falter – he looks frustrated even as he runs, hops and salsa dances, and doesn’t give off any warmth even when brandishing a prop flamethrower during his performance of Omo Ope with guest Olamide.
You’d think Asake would pack out his brief set with hits – and he does run past curfew, performing for around an hour – but instead of Sungba, 2:30 or Terminator, we get a barely audible, sat-down performance of Davido’s No Competition. Even the special guests don’t quite land. Fireboy DML shines singing Sere but Tiwa Savage seems to suffer mic issues during Loaded. Bringing out Lighthouse Family’s Tunde Baiyewu to perform Ocean Drive, which Asake sampled on Sunshine, is a nice touch but not interesting or rewarding enough to justify hearing the same song twice.
There’s seemingly no one more disappointed by the night than Asake himself. He seems cross, and at the abrupt end adds: “I’ll be back.” (He literally returns in a new outfit to perform Joha when much of the audience has left before being cut off again.) It’s a frustratingly safe return to the capital from a genuinely brilliant recording artist, and not in the way he intended.