Loyle Carner review – hip-hop with an open heart

Eventim Apollo, London
From daddy issues to violent crime, the south London rapper’s thoughtful set is distinguished by its emotional candour and vulnerability

“I broke the cycle,” declares south London rapper Loyle Carner, savagely but happily. He’s talking about HGU – one of the most hard-hitting songs on his resonant third album, Hugo. As his band of nuanced live players slide gracefully into languid, jazz-tinged breakbeats, Carner dedicates the song to “my father, and his father, and his father’s father”, as a sold-out crowd bay their approval. We’re neck-deep in the first of a two-night residency in London towards the end of Carner’s UK tour: there’s another sellout – at the 12,500-capacity Wembley Arena – the following night, which will be livestreamed.

Even if you don’t know Carner’s own story, it would be hard to throw a pebble and not hit someone with daddy issues. There is a sense in this room of him strumming people’s pain with his fingers. The music fades out to leave him, clad in simple white T-shirt, rapping a cappella. His final verse goes hard against the conditions that created his line of absent fathers – who were, to quote Philip Larkin, “fucked up in their turn” – looking for a break point in the circuit. Carner wants to “rewrite the ending, and the prequel” because for “the cycle to repeat” is the “default”.

In his own life, it seems, Carner has found that inflexion point: presence and forgiveness. HGU and Hugo are both named after a car, number plate ending in HGU, belonging to his biological father. It’s not the sort of car rappers normally rap about, but a vehicle for a more ordinary, and deeper, kind of wish fulfilment.

Carner was raised by his (white, special needs teacher) mother and his (white, Liverpool fan) stepfather, who died suddenly in 2014. His biological father (of Guyanese descent) was absent from his life until recently. Two previous Carner albums orbit round the wound of those absences – Yesterday’s Gone (2017), and its 2019 follow-up, Not Waving, But Drowning.

Carner and his biological father reconnected a couple of years ago, with Carner’s father giving him driving lessons in the battered VW Polo. The birth of the rapper’s own son in 2020 was a significant catalyst. The youngster is, Carner shares proudly, currently asleep backstage.

Tonight’s accomplished gig winds its way angrily, thoughtfully and tunefully through this reconnection, taking in vast swathes of adjacent emotional territory: racism, men expressing their feelings, the trauma of violent crime and spoken-word tracks such as Polyfilla, about fixing the holes punched in walls.

Loyle Carner, smiling, with his baseball cap in his hand, at the Hammersmith Apollo
Hats off… Carner in Hammersmith. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Particularly powerful is Blood on My Nikes, about the 16-year-old Carner literally wiping blood off his trainers after witnessing a shooting. Carner brings out the song’s guest voice – Athian Akec, a former youth MP. His words about the government’s neglect of the root causes of violence get one of the most heartfelt cheers of the night. Carner also dedicates a song to Gary Lineker. Sadly, Plastic is one of Hugo’s less subtle lyrics, riffing on the repetition of the title, making a series of obvious points.

If Carner’s own narrative arc is wending its way towards resolution, this gig provides a parallel career denouement. His fortunes are enjoying one of those mythical, steady, organic upticks. Operating in a notionally tough-guy genre, Carner has never stinted on emotional candour. When Ben Coyle-Larner started out 10 years ago, his entire pitch as a rapper was to talk about the vulnerability much hip-hop shied away from. (His stage name nods to verbal mix-ups occasioned by his dyslexia and ADHD.) He encourages those present to voice their pain. “I lost friends cos they couldn’t cry,” Carner specifies. He stops the set numerous times to attend to fans feeling unwell.

With Hugo, then, Carner has seized a zeitgeist that has been a long time coming. He was talking about his ADHD from the get-go; he famously set up a cookery training programme, Chilli Con Carner, for those struggling with mainstream schooling.

It feels as though UK rap, too, has gradually come towards him. You could point to Dave’s seismic Psychodrama, or Headie One’s Edna, as two moments when the mainstream formally allowed Black men to foreground not just their traumatic stories but their patchy mental health, and its ongoing impact on their relationships. But the great proponents of the genre have been going deep for years. The multifaceted Stormzy built on a platform of emotional and sociological literacy established by MCs such as Kano.

Watch Loyle Carner perform HGU.

Carner’s smaller stepping stones have been well chosen, too. A good handful of his works have been on Fifa soundtracks and – unexpectedly – in Succession: the pivotal episode in season one when Kendall Roy and the incapacitated waiter crash the car into the lake. His collaborations have resonated. Tonight’s show is generous with guests, with Carner bringing out London rapper Knucks for their standout song Standout and US rapper Erick the Architect for their great tune Let It Go. Old hand Jordan Rakei is here for Ottolenghi – a track named after a book by the chef Yotam Ottolenghi that prompts some of the lyrical action.

But everyone is here for the dressed-down MC whose superpower is his vulnerability. “I forgive you” and “Go forwards!” are his most hammered edicts. And these are messages that only gain from their repetition.


Kitty Empire

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