Though being ‘real’ has always been an important currency in hip hop; few have taken it to the levels of Loyle Carner. Swapping street level exploits for deeply personal exposes of everything from his family life to his own rap fandom, Carner bares his soul with an ease that few rappers can rival. It’s an openness that can both unsettle and comfort the listener; an autobiographical breed of rap music that speaks to a broad audience in that way only the most personal stories can. “I just wanted [the album] to sound like home, to be honest,” Carner says, equally as candid in person as he is on record.
He goes on to explain that he doesn’t really think about people listening to his music when he writes it. Instead, Carner uses his music as a diary, spilling his deepest insecurities into it regardless of how many people might end up reading about them. “[I wanted] to get my own story out,” he continues, “more for me, so I have something on paper for when I’m older.” It’s an approach that’s particularly resonant for the South London MC.
“The name Yesterday’s Gone comes from an album my dad made before he passed away. I only found out about it after he passed,” he reveals. “My mum gave it to me, and I had it on my iPod for a couple of months, but I couldn’t bring myself to listen to it. Then finally I did. There’s a song on it called ‘Yesterday’s Gone’, it was like he was saying it to me, like ‘don’t worry there’s other stuff to get on with’ and that’s why the album became about.” Carner’s experience of the father/son relationship has undoubtedly informed the music that he makes; his biological father left the family when Carner was young while his step-dad tragically passed away in 2014. These two losses provided the basis for two of his breakout tracks, ‘BFG’ and ‘Tierney Terrace’, in which he probes both his grief and frustration around fatherhood. As such, discussion of family life and emotion is something that’s been part of his career since the start, but while many other MCs may prefer to shy away from the subject for fear of exposing their vulnerability, Carner makes clear how important he thinks that is.
“I’m soft as fuck man!” he laughs when asked if he worries about his fellow MCs doubting his credibility. “I don’t see it as an issue at all, know what I mean? I don’t see it as a negative thing. I understand how my emotions work; I think that’s a good thing.” For Carner, that voice is sorely lacking in hip hop these days and generally in those circles deemed ‘masculine’. He cites old school Kanye as an icon in this field and makes a point to mention UK veteran Kano as well, though he’s careful not to offend when he dubs the latter a ’sensitive’ MC. “It needs to be more socially acceptable, and the only way that’s going to happen is if someone says ‘this is how I feel, here you go’. If I can say it in front of a thousand people in a venue, then someone can say it to their uncle.”
That vulnerability might be winning him a broader fan base than some British rap, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a favourite of hip hop’s notoriously hard to please heads. With support slots for the likes of DJ Premier, Nas and MF Doom under his belt, few could claim Carner to be an imposter in the scene. “All my favourite rappers are like that,” he declares. “When I’m my most weak, that’s when I’m being strong. Anyone can put on a mask and say ‘fuck you I don’t care’ and put their emotions to one side, that’s the coward’s way” he goes on, defying those who think rap’s real tough guys are the likes of “Lil Thug or Lil Yacht” (sic). “To embrace something like that is a brave thing, and I’ve got respect for anyone that can do it” he concludes before his modesty takes over. “I don’t know if I’m brave per se.”
Though he is the same age and grew up in the same ends, Carner doesn’t feel like part of the current conversation surrounding the likes of fellow South Londoners Ray BLK, Stormzy and Dave. “I feel like a bit of an outsider looking in,” he confesses, “a lot of the people doing that stuff, I see them talked about in popular culture but I wouldn’t see myself in the same conversation as them.” His reasons are many, from the US influence on his music to the audience it attracts, however the clearest separation between Carner and BLK, an artist who also draws heavily on 90s hip hop, is subject. Where his peers write about life where they live, Carner turns that gaze inwards, focusing, in the least narcissistic way possible, on himself. That’s not to say either style is better, but it’s especially interesting to see how both approaches create a sense of familiarity amongst fans. For all the talk of US influence, his sound is still unmistakably British and by his admission, he owes as much to Skinner and Kano as it does to Biggie and Nas.
South London’s grime MCs and R&B singers may be making the UK feel more at home with the sounds of their streets, but Loyle Carner is making the UK feel more at home with themselves. Between the two, rap in the UK will never be the same again.
Featured image: Loyle Carner wears Jacket Stone Island