12. Loyle Carner: Hugo

The arc of Loyle Carner is a fascinating one. His 2017 debut, Yesterday’s Gone, was an incredibly bold record. The young rapper from Croydon eschewed the (frankly overused) stereotypical subject matters. Instead, he wrote and sang songs about his mum and, poignantly, his dad, who tragically and unexpectedly passed away three years before Yesterday’s Gone was released. It was a homespun debut, one which cemented Carner as a worthy wordsmith and storyteller, narrating tales about his everyday life. They say when you’re starting out you should write about what you know. Carner did.

Two years later, he released his second album, Not Waving But Drowning. It marked an interesting direction of travel. Thematically, it seemed to follow Yesterday’s Gone, with a collection of intimate stories about his life. Those familial tunes about his beloved mum were still present. However, musically his sound had evolved into a relaxed, lounge-jazz vibe. Listening to Not Waving But Drowning, you get a sense that its creator is a young man at peace with himself and the world. But dig deeper. Look at the album’s title, then jump directly to the album’s title track. Lifted from the Stevie Smith poem, this is the story of the man in the sea whose friends though he was waving to them when, in fact, he was drowning. You get the picture?

That brings us to Carner’s 2020 release, Hugo. Despite those clues in Not Waving But Drowning, it’s not where I thought he was going. This is a visceral assault on society. Carner appears to have decided that he is no longer going to narrate the simple day-to-day events that occur in his life. Instead, with the attitude of a man who has seen enough, he has decided to deliver a blistering commentary on the wider events he is observing. And, clearly, has experienced. 

He talks frankly about his mixed-race roots, discussing the confusion that created. On Georgetown, poet John Agard narrates an introduction that seems to mock the entire concept of half-caste, whilst on the outstanding Ladas Road (Nobody Knows) he goes further about the issues arising from being mixed-race. Subject to anti-black racism without the shield of the black community. Not belonging to either.

Those tracks form part of a trio that open Hugo. The other is the opening track, Hate. It spits out of the speakers, a shock to those of us who have become comfortable with Carner’s style. It is a raw narrative, one that comes from deep within the rapper. He is exposed. Knife crime and teenage gang violence are also covered on Hugo. When he was sixteen, Carner witnessed a murder. He has only now found his voice to talk about it, which he eloquently does on Blood On My Nikes. 

Hugo is a veritable tour de force. Maybe it was fatherhood, possibly the impact of lockdown, but this is an album that has shifted Carner’s arc quite unexpectedly. But that’s brilliant, isn’t it? Great artists are meant to keep us guessing and with Hugo, Loyle Carner shows that he is a great artist. In doing so, he has created the finest album of his short career to date.     

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