REVIEW: Loyle Carner – Not Waving, But Drowning

The gentle man of rap is back.

I’m not sure how much Loyle will like that moniker, but he’s been given it (by me) for a reason. When I first heard his previous album, the majestic Yesterday’s Gone, I had been through a long and depressing divorce with hip hop music. Oddisee’s The Iceberg had begun to bring us back together. But it was Loyle’s loving and tender approach to my once much-loved musical genre that made me realise I was wrong to think that rap was now just gangs, guns, disrespect to women, and 50 Cent. Loyle was doing something fresh.

His family orientated first album, with features from his mum and songs about an imagined sister he’d always hoped for, set him apart from a crowded scene. His declarations of love and loss felt genuine. And, in interviews and live performances, it was clear that the man matched the music. Meeting a young man making hip hop music but not presenting himself as tough and untouchable was more than refreshing. It was exciting.

And all of that remains with the release of Not Waving, But Drowning. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t feel a bit nervous taking on this review. What if I hated it? I have to be honest in my reviews, and would hate to put anything negative out about someone who actually got me back into a genre that once meant so much to me. But I needn’t have worried.

In songs such as ‘Loose Ends’, an album highlight which features Jorja Smith, Loyle continues to use his family history as inspiration. He discusses the death of his father and his mother’s struggles with grief. It’s a beautiful song, in more ways than one. In the equally affecting ‘Krispy’ he talks, in a heartbreakingly honest way, about how important his relationship with collaborator Rebel Kleff has been to him and how some of that friendship has diminished now that they work together more than they hang out as friends. And when his mum contributes a poem in the final track they turn a moment that could easily be cheesy into something moving and meaningful.

But in some ways, if you take what I have said so far in this review, it seems difficult to separate the two albums and see an evolution. But there definitely is one. ‘Looking Back’ is the starkest example, as Loyle opens up about the difficulties he has found in understanding his mixed race heritage and the tribulations of learning about being a black man in a white world. The lines when he discusses how his father ‘Never called me nigga, said it’s the master’s tongue’ and how he sometimes finds himself ‘thinking that my great grandfather could’ve owned my other one’ will be relatable to many of his listeners. This is powerful stuff that takes his work from the individual to the societal.

At the time of writing this review, Not Waving, But Drowning has been out for just a week. My favourite track has changed nearly every day. ‘Looking Back’ might be winning right now, but I don’t think I could finish this review without giving a quick mention to ‘Still.’ While in many ways a personal song, it is another example of how he can turn the personal into something universal. The line about his ADHD being ‘the best and worst thing about me’ is so simple but has the potential to mean so much to so many.

I have to admit that I’m surprised to say this, but I think Loyle has surpassed his debut. I’ve had so many positives to point out that I haven’t had time to mention the amazing features from the likes of Sampha and Tom Misch. This feels like a special album by a special artist and I hope you’ll all spend the time to get to know it.

Words by Fran Slater. 


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