Loyle Carner shares his family strife to create awkwardly confessional hip-hop

After the death of his stepfather, this south London rapper had to step up around the house. But was filming videos in the kitchen part of the plan?

Call Ben Coyle-Larner a mama’s boy and he probably wouldn’t take offence. The 20-year-old rapper stands in his dining room, his arms wrapped around the shoulders of his mother, Jean. BBC 6 Music crackles over the radio. Two guitars lean against a vinyl-stuffed bookcase, and a colourful array of trinkets – hen-shaped egg cups, miniature action figures, mismatched glasses – battle for attention on a tall dresser. Ben’s younger brother, Ryan, 14, shuffles in, trailed by the family’s black poodle, Ringo. It would feel even more ordinary were a three-man camera crew not slowly filling the cosy kitchen with lights and filming equipment.

“Which way should these cameras go? Clockwise or anticlockwise?” Ben asks, now standing with Jean and the crew, and trying to decide how to begin the video for his new single, Tierney Terrace. He’s co-directing and has sketched it out frame-by-frame. It’s clear he’s the hands-on type, a musician who likes to muck in at every stage. In this case, by casting himself and his family in a visual and personal story that will sweep viewers through their home. And his role? Loyle Carner.

Loyle Carner is the rapper who talks about the issues closest to his heart: family, and dealing with adulthood. His breakthrough began with the EP A Little Late, released in September 2014, seven months after his stepfather died, and shot through with a painful intimacy and blunt honesty. When, for example, on the track BFG he raps: “Everybody says I’m fuckin’ sad/ Of course I’m fuckin’ sad, I miss my fuckin’ dad,” his resonant voice cracks and quivers. You can’t help but wince, from both empathy and an awkward embarrassment; the stiff upper lip has no place here. As well as confronting the gnawing sadness of grief, A Little Late explores the family responsibilities he felt after his stepdad’s death. How does he find that balance between being himself, a young and vibrant man barely out of his teens, and a sudden father figure?

“That’s the most difficult battle of it, because I can never replace my dad – but I can try my best to fill his shoes. Oddly enough, he had size 13 shoes, so I will never quite fill them,” he says, laughing, “but I try my best.”

Carner sharpened his creative skills on a drama scholarship at the Brit School, and then started a drama degree at university before music took over. But the drama is not forgotten. “If I do music, I’m in the video, and I direct the video. I don’t see those as three different things; it just seems to be the only way to do it. I’ve tried to treat every environment I’ve been in as somewhere to learn. Not as if to say: ‘Oh, I’m the best,’ but to know that I’m merely a student. All I want to do is be better.”

As a child diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD – “Things I was bullied and judged for” – Carner’s energy was labelled as misplaced, rather than multifaceted. Watching him work, running through the storyboard one last time or looking through the first shots of the day, you get the impression that he’s learning how to be a rapper and an actor and an adult, all at once. “He’s not just creative in one way,” Jean says to me, as he briefly steps out of the room. She’s been watching him perform, from the school nativity to this year’s Glastonbury, “where I had to dash across the whole festival during Patti Smith to get to him. He’s always had a creative gift.” Well, his mum wouldn’t exactly slate him, would she?

Click here to see Loyle Carner’s Tierney Terrace video.

Weeks after the video shoot, as we sit in a poky pub beer garden, Carner talks about spending most of his early childhood with his grandparents in south London “because my mum was working late nights and I didn’t have anyone else at home”. He speaks only in the briefest terms about his biological father, from whom he’s been estranged for years. He sees his mother and brother as the most important people in his life. “I see mums as better than dads,” he says, laughing softly.

Putting family first is one thing, but how does that translate into the music? The odd shout-out to loved ones can go down well – see Tupac’s Dear Mama or Kanye West’s Hey Mama – but creating this level of intimacy with the listener is a gamble. They might recoil. They may well feel confused once they realise that the boombap production, largely crafted by Carner’s long-term friend Rebel Kleff and reminiscent of carefree 90s summer block parties, cushions the blow of some heavy lyrics. Surely he must worry about letting the world in this early in his career?

“It’s scary. It’s daunting but it’s also exciting,” he says. “Look, sometimes I think something may be too personal, and I’ll ask Rebel Kleff or my mum: ‘Is this too much?’ But I’ve never thought something’s been too much and taken it out.” He pauses. “I do worry that people think I‘m just continuously moaning, though,” he says, smiling.

Live, that so-called moaning can initially feel jarring, before Carner’s charm softens its sharp edges. “This is for anyone who’s got a deadbeat dad,” he says between songs, launching into Tierney Terrace in a sweaty, packed room at the Visions festival in east London. As he chides his absent biological father in song, barely stopping for breath, I notice an audience member wince.

This isn’t quite on-trend grime. It’s UK rap, littered with the minutiae of Carner’s cultural and personal references. And it sets him apart from the grime resurgence boosted by Kanye West’s Brit awards performance and Drake’s various co-signs this year. Carner feels no need to ditch the boombap and follow the herd, although he’s more than happy to see UK rap earning recognition.

“We’d have cut through at some point, regardless of if Drake had put his arm around Skepta. But it is fantastic. For someone like Kendrick Lamar to be talking about someone like Little Simz is amazing. Because if he says that, then it means that people might spiral off from Little Simz, and look at this or that UK rapper. And maybe they’ll just find me, hopefully … ”

Tierney Terrace is out now on paradYse.


Tshepo Mokoena

The GuardianTramp

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