Competition for this year’s Mercury Prize is hotter than it’s ever been. Stormzy’s Gang Signs & Prayer and Sampha’s Process alone were two of the biggest albums in the world; but there are at least as many arguments in favour of Loyle Carner and his astonishing debut Yesterday’s Gone as there are for Stormzy, Sampha and the rest.
Tellingly, Carner has cited wordsmiths like Nas and Roots Manuva as key influences on his style. A combination of rap, poetry (‘+44’, for example, is pure spoken-word) – and, of course – a sizeable dose of ‘90s NYC hip-hop, Loyle Carner is the truest continuation of hip-hop’s storied lineage of multi-faceted creators; he’s all at once multi-disciplined, open-minded and progressive. He takes some of the key elements of hip-hop (as laid out in the genre’s formative years in New York) – rapping, style and art – and renders them through a lens passed down through British greats like Rodney P, Roots Manuva and, as it turns out, his own father. Or, as he puts it far more succinctly on ‘The Seamstress (Tooting Masala)’, “from the bar side fluent in that Pharcyde sewage”.
“Rapping is part of a wider culture, which is hip-hop,” he once said in an interview with Complex. “There are many facets of it that influence me from the music, to the style and fashion, to the messages behind it all. I guess I based what I was wearing on things that came from my grandad. He was part of the Black Watch, that was his clan. I just used to rep that and kind of incorporate that tartan aesthetic into what I was wearing, lots of check shirts.” While the Mercury Prize doesn’t really factor in style, that visual bent to his creativity is reflected in the vivid imagery in his music.
Let’s take ‘Stars And Shards’, for example, one of the album’s singles. On the track, Carner spins a cautionary tale of three friends with his typically nimble flow and wordplay. Meanwhile, the video created for the track by Anna Ginsberg & Gworge used a combination of slick editing and bold animation to reflect the shifting lyrical imagery. “Didn’t seem to be the average type, caught a badge in sight / Coppers turning foxes and it just wasn’t the rabbits’ night”. And that’s just one of dozens of examples of Loyle’s lyrical slight-of-hand. Of course, he’s not the first person to talk about the darker side of street life. He’s not even the only one on this year’s shortlist, but he is one of a very, very small number to look at the world and reflect the truth of it, warts and all.
That’s not to say Yesterday’s Gone is morose. Far from it in fact. Going back to “Stars & Shards”, Carner grins through the bar “Cutting more lines than disabled kids up in Thorpe Park”. Not only that, but the similes and metaphors he uses to hold up this reflection are by far the most witty and dextrous, however raw and uncompromising. Even the darker moments on the album are punctuated with dry humour. But there are also much lighter moments. Most of the album is driven by infectious, classic hip-hop beats as they are laid-back soul samples. Even when he laments a girl he fell in love with who was much older than him on “Damselfly” with Tom Misch the bittersweet story is delivered over a sunny, jazzy beat reminiscent of the Jay Dee the girl listened to.
Furthermore, while a lot of grime and hip-hop focuses on self-elevation (and there’s nothing wrong with that, the bravado and braggadocio is half the fun), it’s worth recognising that Loyle Carner’s music is an increasingly rare example of searing self-reflection. And certainly one of the only ones to do so with such wry humour. “ADHD isn’t my disorder – it’s more like my superpower,” the Croydon rapper once famously proclaimed. Just look at tracks like ‘No CD’ for lines like “We got some old Jay Zs, couple ODBs,” offers Carner. “Place ’em up in perfect order ’cos [of] my OCD.” Few of today’s records – and fewer still on the Mercury shortlist – offer such potent, and indeed wry, examples of self-awareness
Without putting too fine a point on it – and without being unkind to anyone else on this list – Loyle Carner is the most unique artist on the list. No one else on this short list embodies the British ideals of stubbornly going against the grain. While everyone else is repping, trapping and drilling, Loyle is delivering tracks like ‘Mean It In The Morning’ with intricately woven bars about love, peppered with searing self-examination: “Pressed like apple in the cider she was sipping / We were drunk and she would listen / Longing for the later when you shaded her with kissing / And you coloured all her numbers / With the love that you’ve been missing”.
Ultimately, there is far more to be said about Yesterday’s Gone then could ever be squeezed into just one analysis. The timelessness created with the expertly-sought out soul and jazz samples; the unassailable Britishness of his flow and subject matter; his reassembling of the fundamentals of hip-hop – beats, rhymes, fashion and art – into a uniquely British animal. All of these factors are key to understanding the brilliance of Yesterday’s Gone. Most arrestingly however, and this is what Yesterday’s Gone should be remembered for most of all, is his ability to look into himself with astonishing clarity and see not just his strengths, as most rappers do, but also his flaws. And that is the essence: In a world of self-aggrandisement, Loyle Carner pursues self-improvement.
Tickets are available to buy now for The Hyundai Mercury Prize Awards Show taking place on September 14th at the Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith. The BBC Four show will start at 9 pm featuring performances from the artists and the live winners announcement.
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