Loyle Carner review – the sentimental face of grime

Koko, London
The beats recall those of Brit-hop’s most combative genre, but Carner adds a little tenderness

UK rap has come a long way since its first commercial release in 1982. Christmas Rapping was not as cheesy as its title suggests, but despite his west London roots, rapper Dizzy Heights affected an American accent throughout. Fast-forward to 2016, and real London vernacular could not be more in demand. Last month Tottenham’s Skepta won the Mercury prize, whose shortlist also featured fellow grime artist Kano. North American stars from Drake to Pharrell Williams are anxious to align themselves with this arcane world of “garms” (clothes), “bars” (rhymes) and “creps” (shoes).

Loyle Carner says that the unapologetic London-ness of grime gave him the confidence to rap in the accent of his native Croydon. But Carner’s music and the themes he pursues are far removed from the beefs and belligerence of the grime scene. Silhouetted against stark beams from four lights at the foot of the DJ console behind him, Carner takes the stage before his largest ever audience and, without a beat playing, in a delivery that is pure London street … tells them how much he misses his dad.

There’s a lot of backstory with Carner. In fact he makes the backstory the front story, setting his biography, his emotions and his family life at the heart of his rhymes. His real name is Benjamin Coyle-Larner, the stage name a spooneristic version of the surname. It was suggested by his mother, who noted that her son would call himself Loyle Carner as a result of his dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Carner has found that cooking keeps him calm, and alongside the music he runs a cookery scheme to help kids with ADHD.

His mother is present in the sellout Koko crowd, and in the first of many garrulous interludes, he introduces her at the end of this opening number. Dressed in a black Adidas football shirt with “CARNER” and the number 7 on the back, the 21-year-old Loyle is an impressive dancer, skanking and bouncing nonstop across the unforgivingly empty stage. It’s no mean feat to remain watchable with so little support, but the garbled stories are as positively received as the raps themselves. “This is the biggest stage I’ve ever played, and everyone I love is here,” he says. “There’s nobody else I need. Make some noise for my mum!”

Loyle Carner at Koko, London.
‘His garrulous interludes and garbled stories are as positively received as the raps themselves’: Loyle Carner at Koko. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Carner’s real father was not around when he was growing up, and his stepfather, a musician, died suddenly. The rapper wears a piece of red fabric draped across his shoulders, which he alternately grips and waves, not unlike a boxer with a towel. We learn a few moments later that it’s his stepfather’s Eric Cantona shirt – the old man being a devoted fan of Manchester United – and that he carries it with him when performing to keep his memory close at hand. “Although it’s confusing,” says Carner, “because I’m actually a Liverpool fan.”

It’s hard to think of anything that would endear a son less to a United-following father than announcing an affection for the scousers, but there is no time to dwell on this as Carner embarks on the story of how his mother always wanted a daughter but got two boys. “Anyway, so I wrote this fucking poem,” he says, launching into Florence, which was used in an iPhone 6 ad. It’s curious that for all his sensitivity and heartfelt confessional, this brings the total number of “fuckings” to a tally beyond the capacity of even the most pugilistic grime artist. “Thank you ever so fucking much,” he says. Then someone shouts out “Stop!”

He hears the cry and signals for the music to be cut. Among the swirling bodies in front of the sound desk, someone has collapsed. Carner’s concern is palpable, and a sickly silence descends. But after a few minutes, it’s clear that it’s not serious, and the backing track restarts. “Thank you for helping him, for being lovely human beings – that’s what it’s all about,” he says. “This one’s for the guy who had a seizure!”

Likable to the end, Carner closes the 50-minute show with his best song, No CD, surrounded by friends, who dance and launch confetti. He tells the crowd he will be out front soon, and please everyone come and say hello. This is disarming, and somehow the opposite of mystique, but the crowd cheer. For all its success this year, many people dislike grime: the menace, the quasi-criminality, the endless geezers. Perhaps this is their constituency: similar beats, but with cookery classes and touching songs about your parents.

Watch the video for Loyle Carner’s No CD.


Tom Horan

The GuardianTramp

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