Central Cee saves the best of his set for last at Rolling Loud Toronto
It takes more than songs to crossover into mass appeal, it takes presence. Through a screen Central Cee has tons of presence. The body covering tattoos, the wavy hair, the charming smile, all shine through the screen but the closer you get to him the dimmer that shine becomes.
In waiting for Central Cee on Friday night at Rolling Loud at Ontario Place, his DJ does some of the best crowd work of the entire set. He warms the crowds with “Clash” by Dave, “Dior” by Pop Smoke and “Body” by fellow Londoner Tion Wayne. The crowd knows all the words and when each track ends a cheer for Central Cee begins.
Finally, after the first few seconds of “Day in the Life,” Central Cee clad in a Tracy McGrady Raptors shirzee, sunglasses and a backwards hat, steps out to a roar. Rapping along with him, the crowd knows all the lyrics for thirty seconds. The hook is hot, and so is the crowd but Cee does very little to stoke the flame.
The best thing about U.K. drill is that the punishing bass from the 808s and the sliding only makes it that much more visceral. The sliding 808s of “Tension,” “Little Bit of This” and “Retail Therapy” buzz through the entire crowd but instead of creating a roiling, the speaker’s buzz resonates among listeners like a tuning fork.
Starting with “Day in the Life” kindled the crowd but diving into deeper cuts immediately showed misunderstanding. While Central Cee is viewed as a major crossover candidate for U.K. drill, surfacing tracks from deeper in the catalogue isn’t how that happens at a festival.
Despite the massive crowd that gathered for Central Cee’s performance in the evening, it rarely dawns upon Cee to engage with them. It’s a performance, but only in terms of the music being rapped live with one hand on the mic and another vigorously pointing or waving instead of listening through a pair of headphones in your bedroom. Besides a couple utterances of “Toronto Rolling Louse, this is way overdue” between “Day in the Life” and “Tension” Cee’s performance is a straight shot punctuated by the sound of a car crash between the tracks.
Central Cee is a singular artist but so is his performance. Focused on solely rapping his lyrics, Cee is divorced from his enormous crowd.
As he raps his bars while pacing the stage, the effervescent nature of the start of songs dwindles like flames in the wind.
At least for people throughout 75 per cent of the crowd.
Showing up early for the Cee performance, I was able to get close enough to make it past the first set of barriers while people were leaving the Bia show. During the Cee set, seeing people standing on stilts, I jumped to see if it was the same all around. Behind me it was. But just a few rows ahead of me was a different set entirely.
There are two Central Cee concerts, the one that he’s delivering and the one that the front of the crowd is creating.
Just a few rows ahead, the crowd pulses like a living lung as it expands and collapses due to mosh pits. Continuing to pace the stage and shouting his lyrics, “Khabib” plays, another deep cut. It then becomes clear as another mosh pit forms that Central Cee’s music is much more niche in Canada than his internet celebrity.
Cee’s set started at 8:55 p.m. and although he was performing on a different stage, for many he was the precursor to fellow Londoner Dave at 9:50 p.m. Performing for nearly an hour means there needs to be deeper cuts. That should also mean a more engaging physical performance to maintain the crowd’s attention. Without that, Cee’s hardcore fans are moved despite him pacing and bouncing from one foot to the next. But those casuals are nonplussed, especially when Central Cee took half of “Overseas” off to drink a bottle of water. Even a song like “Commitment Issues” where Cee asks “Where the ladies at?” before playing, sent people bouncing off each other during the hook.
Approaching his final songs Cee said “It’s only up from here, I don’t wanna see no man standing stiff” but he never took his own advice. His light prancing on the stage is as animated as he ever gets when he performs the crowd pleasers.
“Loading” and “Doja” his biggest tracks, produced the biggest crowd pops but independent of Cee. Played straight “Loading” turned what was a crowd into Mad Max as pits closed and the bass hit on the intro. Looking back into the crowd it’s clear these tracks are what they’re here for as the crowd’s rigidity has melted away.
The final track, “Doja” introduced by it’s sample, “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” by Eve, then ramped up to the former’s speed. During the bpm bump, Olympic rings formed in the crowd only to become totally enveloped by their creators jumping and shouting the lyrics over Central Cee’s vocals.
To make the U.K. to North America crossover core fans and Central Cee think can happen, requires work, not just on the music but the audience. The smoothness of Cee’s rhymes combined with punishing bass that is drill makes for an ultra slick product, his core fans know this. But to truly grasp that wider audience he wants, the presentation even at a festival is everything and it looked very plain at Rolling Loud Toronto.