Loyle Carner: Not Waving, But Drowning review – heartfelt hip-hop

AMF Records

Loyle Carner’s second album opens with a love letter. Titled Dear Jean, it’s addressed to the musician’s mother, reassuring her over tinkling piano and the gentle tapping together of drumsticks that, despite his decision to move out of the family home and in with his girlfriend, he is not abandoning her. It is, like the majority of the south Londoner’s output, utterly heartfelt and startlingly intimate – delivering his lyrics in a wistful mutter, the 24-year-old sounds moved to the point of tears by the tenderness of his own relationships.

Carner, whose real name is Benjamin Coyle-Larner, is cut from a different cloth to most rappers. Not because he’s a dyed-in-the-wool mummy’s boy – maternal affection is a well-established trope of the genre – but because he extends this mawkishness to the rest of the world. When he’s not waxing lyrical about his girlfriend’s loveliness, Carner is earnestly mourning a longstanding friendship (Krispy), or a recently deceased celebrity chef (Antonio Carluccio). The Stevie Smith poem this album is named after is about a man whose jovial character masks inner turbulence, yet its relevance is never clarified: Carner is an artist who seems quite happy to wear his heart on his sleeve. His 2017 debut, Yesterday’s Gone, included a track in which he fantasised about caring for a fictional little sister, and both albums feature his mother reading out self-penned poems about how special her son is – a gesture that would cause most people to break out in a cold sweat were it directed at them, and with good reason: the device feels both cloying and slightly smug.

At other moments, Carner’s rejection of the blokey posturing that typifies hip-hop – the threats, the boasts, the jokes – proves refreshing. Yet Not Waving, But Drowning isn’t future-facing in a sonic sense: diaristic outpourings of emotion are matched with the comforting patter of boom-bap beats and the cosy tones of vintage soul, while edges are softened further still via luxuriant crooning from Sampha and Jorja Smith. The result is a collection of smooth, soft-centred rap that verges on the sickly, with Carner’s genial charisma floating adrift in a sea of sentimentality and nostalgia.


Rachel Aroesti

The GuardianTramp

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