REVIEW: Loyle Carner – Hugo

Towards the end of second album Not Waving, But Drowning, Loyle Carner took a diversion from his usual songs about love, family, and friendships to delve into the complications he has found in understanding his mixed-heritage and his difficult relationship with his father. It felt like a jump. The gentle man of rap was putting something else of himself out there – not just being vulnerable by showing familial affection in a way that most rappers don’t, but also admitting to some complex and overwhelming feelings about his identity.

On Hugo, he delves deeper and deeper into this sphere. In ‘Nobody Knows (Ladas Road)’ he states ‘I told the black man he didn’t understand/I reached the white man, he wouldn’t take my hand’ – but the sense is that both these men are him, that he is looking for a connection within himself that he is yet to find. Added complication comes from the fact he is now a father (‘because my kid will maybe have them blue eyes/and he will understand the pain that’s in mine’) who is still trying to accept the shortcomings of his own dad, the fact that he never helped him to understand his roots (‘You can’t hate the roots of the tree, and not hate the tree – so how can I hate my father without hating me?’) It’s a powerful message that many mixed-race people will understand, and Loyle has built the foundations of his third album around it.

If the message didn’t feel totally clear after that song, it is hammered home at the start of ‘Georgetown’ when a voice asks the listener to explain what they mean when they say ‘half-caste’. Later in the same song, with one of the album’s most memorable choruses, Loyle tells us he is ‘black like the key on a piano/white like the key on a piano’. He talks about how his life was a mix of black skin and white culture, a confusing split that left his feeling not quite at home in either identity. On ‘Blood On My Nikes’ he admits ‘and so I grew up, scared of the night bus/scared of the boys who look like us’.

These topics feel more intense than those on his previous albums, and so does the music. There’s a fuller, more layered sound – dramatic production from Kwes that lifts the songs somewhere new, elements of jazz still being used but sparingly, never taking over the songs. The often laid back flow from album one and two replaced by Loyle spitting fire, anger present throughout his performance. It’s mesmerising in a way his work hasn’t been before, with both previous albums feeling like they could almost be used as chillout music. I am not saying that makes this album better, necessarily – but it does make it more purposeful, more attention-grabbing. Album highlight ‘Speed of Plight’ is the best example – I can’t play this song without giving it full attention, the beat and the bars pulling you away from anything else you’re attempting to do.

That doesn’t mean that the slower, ballad-esque songs don’t have a place – both ‘Homerton’ and ‘A Lasting Place’ are pretty, heartstring-pullers that Loyle has long been known for. And ‘Polyfilla’ is as gorgeous as anything he is written before. But over the second half of the album it is ‘Plastic’ and ‘HGU’ that grab you by the neck – two songs that use their pace and power to pull you in. ‘HGU’, in particular, sees a vocal performance we’ve never heard from the rapper before – so much emotion in every word.

It’s a powerful piece of work that does escalate Loyle Carner to a new level. That isn’t to say it is his best album – I still think that award goes to the debut – but if anyone was starting to think he was a one-trick pony with a limited amount to say, this album puts that to bed. It’s frantic at times, angry often, vulnerable always – and in moments that focus on walking the tightrope between two cultures, he will find an audience that doesn’t often have a lot of music written for them. Those songs will really speak to people.

Words by Fran Slater


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