Loyle Carner cuts an impressively idiosyncratic figure among the ranks of hotly tipped British rappers. His breakthrough came not with a swaggering, self-aggrandising statement of intent, but a 2014 track called BFG, an understated, heartbroken rumination on the death of his stepfather. Carner sounded on the verge of tears – “Of course I’m fucking sad,” he rapped at one point, his voice choking with emotion, “I miss my fucking dad.” After less than two minutes, the track petered out, as if it was overwhelmed by grief, or as if all concerned had suddenly reconsidered the wisdom of recording something this emotionally raw. He parlayed his burgeoning success not into a clothing range or a record label, but by starting a cookery course for teenagers who suffer, as he does, from ADHD. “Stop trying to be the fucking good Samaritan, just enjoy your life,” advises a friend on one of his debut album’s non-musical interludes – not skits so much as snatches of conversation captured by Carner on his phone. “There’s more to life than getting waved,” responds the rapper. It might sound a bit sanctimonious were it not for the fact that Carner sounds so waved when he says it that you’re astonished he’s still capable of getting his phone to record.
Young enough to not really remember a music scene that didn’t have grime in it, his sound nevertheless bears almost no relation to the genre’s sparse, confrontational electronic clatter: nor does it sound anything like the kind of neon-hued, wilfully commercial British pop-rap that populated the Top 40 before grime’s renaissance. Carner is a fan of Madlib, Slum Village and A Tribe Called Quest, and his music is restrained and downbeat, filled with mournful piano and jazzy guitar chords. For all the influence of 90s boom-bap hip-hop in the beats, it’s shot through with a very British kind of melancholy, redolent of grey streets and rainy afternoons, a sensation listeners of a certain age might find intensified by the presence on his debut album of samples from soundtracks of obscure European films that might once have padded out the daytime television schedules and the kind of library music that used to play over the testcard or in between Programmes for Schools and Colleges.
It’s meant as no reflection on his abilities to say that, a decade ago, the absolute best Loyle Carner could have hoped for was critical acclaim and a degree of cult success: a deal with an indie label, gigs at the Jazz Café in London. But in the current climate, where a performance poet such as Kate Tempest can break out of local arts centres and into the Top 30, bigger things are clearly expected of him: he has been signed by Virgin/EMI, whose website talks excitedly of his ability to “break into the wider public consciousness”; his forthcoming tour takes in two nights at the 2,000-capacity Shepherd’s Bush Empire. On the evidence of Yesterday’s Gone, he certainly has the idiosyncratic talent to achieve it.
There’s a lot of self-examining despondency in hip-hop right now, but the contents of Yesterday’s Gone seem entirely unlike the wave of grandstanding angst spawned by Drake’s success: you search in vain for tales of existential ennui in the VIP area or the luxury hotel suite. Not a rapper out to dazzle you, either with his lifestyle or his breathtaking lyrical dexterity, Carner instead concentrates on sketching little vignettes set in humdrum, everyday surroundings. The Seamstress finds him “tidying the flat, just me and the cat”; Damselfly is interrupted by the sound of Carner rushing to look at a text, then crumpling when he realises it’s just from his mate; Ain’t Nothing Changed opens with the distinctly unglamorous sound of the rapper yearning for the halcyon days when he had a student loan.
Stars and Shards, meanwhile, presents a saga of drug-dealing but drained it of its machismo: what’s left feels grubby and hopeless. They hit home precisely because of their small scale: they feel less urban than domestic, they’re less about eliciting the listener’s sympathy than their empathy, aided by the fact that Carner also doesn’t deal in that weirdly adolescent accusatory tone common among post-Drake solipsists, where everything is so unfair and always someone else’s fault.
Not everything on Yesterday’s Gone works: the tougher-sounding No CD is a bit less convincing than the more subdued tracks. But at its best, the music and lyrics complement each other perfectly. Meet in the Morning sets its low-key saga of romantic woe to an impossibly lovely sample from a mid-70s library recording by Shadows drummer Brian Bennett; there’s something hugely affecting about both the lyric of Florence, which features Carner imagining a younger sister he never had, and the guest vocal by another equally idiosyncratic talent, Kwes.
For all the vulnerability on display, there’s also an unmistakable confidence about everything from the shortness of the album’s tracks – Carner and his collaborators clearly know when less is more – to the way the opening Isle of Arran bases itself on the same old gospel record as It’s All on Me, one of the standouts on Dr Dre’s 2015 album Compton (unabashed by the track’s illustrious history, it goes about using it in a completely different way). That confidence isn’t misplaced, and nor is the glowing expression of maternal pride with which the album ends (“He was and is a complete joy,” offers Carner’s mum, at the conclusion of a track based on music written by his late stepfather). In a crowded market, Yesterday’s Gone manages to carve out its own little world, one that’s both unique and universal.