Photo: Julian Broad / Courtesy of Universal Music

Kate Tempest Takes on the UK Establishment with ‘The Book of Traps and Lessons’ and Wins

The Book of Traps and Lessons reveals Kate Tempest's disdain with contemporary society while also envisioning a future where it all can be changed. With a flair for hip-hop laced with Marxism, the album is poetic artistry.

The Book of Traps and Lessons
Kate Tempest
American Recordings
June 2019

When considering Kate Tempest’s catalog of work, 2014’s Everybody Down and 2016’s Let Them Eat Chaos demonstrated the artist’s penchant for profound lyricism. Her 2019 release, The Book of Traps and Lesson is a fitting platform for Tempest to showcase her wordsmithery. An album composed of spoken word poetry and readings, Tempest words are endowed with emotionality and carnal imagery. The Book of Traps and Lessons reveals Tempest’s disdain with contemporary society while also envisioning a future where it all can be changed. With a flair for hip-hop laced with Marxism, Tempest’s album is poetic artistry.

Tempest’s previous albums were defined by dubstep soundscapes, as her thunderous lyrics were secondary. The Book of Traps and Lessons reverses this approach. The album centralizes Tempest’s vocals and lyrics with slight touches of a muted piano and strings, extenuating the lyrical imagery. “Keep Moving Don’t Move’s” powerful hand percussion is deftly effective while the beat in “Holy Elixir” is primal and evocative of a hip-hop influence. The album’s rhythm is reflective of Tempest’s roots in the genre and Rick Rubin’s influence as the album’s producer. Elsewhere, the instrumentation is often unnoticeable, as Tempest’s commanding narratives dominate the listener’s ear. She often abandons the music entirely, and the tracks become spoken-word poetry. Unencumbered by instrumentation, Tempest creates the space to explore emotion’s power.

Tempest is raw and relatable, and she masterfully avoids theatrics. In the opening “Thirsty”, her reliance on the interconnection between the physical and emotional is stark: “I was heart-broken / Vomiting memories…So, here I was / Marching the town like a priest in my rapture / Muttering spells / So desperate for tenderness.” Tempest adroitly conveys the deep and shattering pain associated with heartache while mythologizing her sorrow. Likewise, “I Trap You” deftly avows love’s mutability. For Tempest, and as the track portrays, passion can easily shift from a fortifying feeling to oppressive disorientation.

The heavy emotionality is often mitigated by observation. In “Keep Moving Don’t Move” she deconstructs society’s absurd relationship with technology and the contemporary impulse to “stroke the phone screen with your thumb like a mother Like a mother trying to wipe clean the face of her only child.” For Tempest, the reliance on technology is a problematic surrogate for human connection.

Her social and political consciousness duly matches Tempest’s introspection. She is especially critical of England and its current political and social culture. On “People’s Faces” she laments “my country’s coming apart” but remains hopeful about the possibility of change. She observes, “None of this was written in stone / There is nothing we’re forbidden to know / And I can feel things changing.” Tempest censures willful ignorance. In “Three-Sided Coin”, she exclaims “This island of England / Oh, England / We set out from this place / For murder and murder / And then we squared it away like it did not occur.” Tempest demands her listeners to remain vigilant of modernity’s connection to past villainies.

The Book of Traps and Lessons also undertakes themes encompassing a global reach. “Brown Eyed Man” is a harrowing account of police brutality. The track begins by illustrating a familiar display of power abuse: “Don’t move a muscle, stay exactly where you are / They took my friend / They cuffed his wrists / They beat him in their van / He hadn’t done a thing.” As the track unfolds, Tempest takes aim at the state’s superstructure, and the continued oppression doled out by capitalism. She is particularly affronted by the false promises of economic equality and exposes upward mobility as a blatant lie: “They feed me with desires for / Things that I don’t need or want…Expensive things I can’t afford / They show me rooms furnished with gold / And then they close the doors.” Tempest condemns alienation and the unfair distribution of wealth and power so apparent in today’s political climate.

As such, The Book of Traps and Lessons is sharp as Tempest’s lyrics position her as a soothsayer. Through her album, she inspires a call for consciousness that will certainly incite radical social and personal change.

RATING 9 / 10