Rema review – brilliant bat-riding Nigerian star is a little too ambitious

O2 Arena, London

There is no doubt that the Afrobeats ace is a phenomenal performer – but his high-wire artistry, splicing trap and rock’n’roll, proves baffling to his audience

As the 23-year-old frequently referred to as the “golden child” of Nigeria’s music industry, Rema has gone from Benin City to locales as diverse as Curaçao, the Norwegian city of Tønsberg, and three cities in India, where he became the first Nigerian artist to complete a sold-out tour. 2022 single Calm Down is one of the biggest African hits ever with 1.6bn Spotify streams (across the original and Selena Gomez-starring remix) and his rapid global stardom has placed him as an immediate peer, rather than heir, to long-established countrymen such as Wizkid, Burna Boy and Davido.

For all his commerciality, this sold-out gig at London’s O2 shows an artist willing to take risks and frame his artistry as not limited to Afrobeats. Opening with a rockstar entrance, Rema ascends to the stage straddling a horse on jagged rocks, lit by red fog and visuals of nuclear explosions, as he sings new track DND with husky and aggressive tones. “I don do too much Ps and Qs right now,” he sings, affirming a refusal to please others, which will prove prophetic.

No Ps and Qs … Rema at the 02, London.

Much of Rema’s catalogue is surprisingly transformed into rock’n’roll-meets-trap, accompanied by his occasional metal-singer screeches and a band employing electric guitars and saxophones to create a movie-thriller tension. His early songs Fame and Why are reworked to accentuate those trap and rock elements, and Rema’s delivery of them is thundering and brazen, as he swings about with considerable swagger. He performs while riding a bat in the sky, an intriguing gothic element which references the bats of his native Benin City.

Rema the O2 Arena, London.
Rema the O2 Arena, London. Photograph: Joseph Okpako/WireImage

The issue, though, is whether prioritising artistic passion pays off for the audience. There is no doubt that Rema is a phenomenal performer – performances of Lady and Beamer, where he is dynamic and passionate singing “fire dey your body oh”, are testament to this. But the show lacks cohesion overall, and it swallows him; the sexy gyrating heart-throb who loves “nyash”, and the masked, misunderstood emo-zombie are personas too opposing to reconcile. Transition breaks are also far too long, especially after a frustratingly late start, and the mismatch between Rema’s enthusiasm and the crowd’s occasional stillness and confusion is awkward; he wants the O2 jumping, but crowdpleasers Dumebi, Woman, Bounce, and Calm Down don’t feature until they’re crammed at the end, past the 11pm curfew.

Rema’s star quality hasn’t been left in question, and he delivers the show that he probably wanted – but with more restraint he would have met fans in the middle.

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