For the next few weeks, we'll be running pieces about what 2016 holds for the UK music scene: which artists possess the power to make it tick, what scenes are approaching boiling point, and what issues we need to fix before we can move forward. You can find all the content so far, right here.
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When I speak to Loyle Carner, he seems a little bit tired, almost apologetic for the downbeat feeling his voice is emanating. “I’m sorry, man…” he says, tailing off. His little brother shattered his bedroom window with a BB gun the night before, so he’s been dealing with an unexpected cold draft; one that’s seeping into his room and threatening to turn the Croydon resident into a drowsy hyperborean. He isn’t mad though. It was just one of those things. Y’know, the sort of annoying incident you have to quietly accept when living at home – which is where Carner resides, with his mum and his brother.
In the past year, Carner has released the critically-acclaimed A Little Late EP, opened for MF Doom and Joey Bada$$, been named on the BBC Sound of 2016 list, announced two London shows with tickets that are like gold dust, and is rumoured to have signed a very lavish record deal with Virgin. All this comes down to one core value, really; Carner’s ability to connect. While his music is planted at an intersection between the boom-bap of East Coast hip-hop, Archy Marshall’s jazz-inflected portraits of South London, and soulful, laid back pop, there’s a bedrock of honest and raw sentimentality running through his sound. You get the sense he leaves no door closed, as though he’s inviting the listener in to come in, sit down, have a cup of tea, confess, and work through their problems together.
While others his age have that burning feeling to spread their wings, freeing themselves from the constraints of parental guidance and the complacency of an emotional safety net, Carner’s mind has had to be on other things. At age thirteen, he had a small part in the film 10,000 BC, which led to a scholarship to the fabled BRIT School, but his acting aspirations were curtailed when his dad passed away, and he dropped out to look after his family.
“My family are all very close. Sometimes we’re all each other have got, you know?”, he says, assessing the situation. “It took on new meaning when my dad passed and I had to become the man of the house. I had to learn how to raise a family of my own. My mum is my best friend, she’s like a sister to me.” Look to his Twitter account, and you’ll see the South London rapper dancing around his little kitchen with his mum, catching her singing on video, cooking tandoori chicken, helping fans (and his fans' mums) try to find tickets to his sold-out shows. It’s a far cry from the inane, infinite feedback loop of heavy-handed rap beefs and copy-and-pasted promo links that propagate most hip-hop artist’s social media accounts.
Once you break into the lyrics of Loyle's music, the allure is in the fact that you know these stories so well. He raps about family a lot: the weight of adulthood (“this inner-city responsibility is killing me”), drinking problems. It’s not just about him, either; he raps intuitively about the concerns he thinks haunt those around him. On one song, “Florence”, he talks about a sister he doesn’t have. Delivered with less style, with less genuine feeling, these songs could come off as a little mawkish or woe-is-me, but here they feel real.
I’m aware I’ve made his music sound a bit heavy and, well, it can be. The rawness of his material can stick with you like a bad argument; a line can go in and hang around, eating away at you and staying long after the song has ended. But it’s always shot through with love. Like a random act of kindness to an old lady on the bus, Carner’s work can have you crying over a happy situation, and smiling about a bad one. There’s two sides to the same coin, giving his music an open and sincere quality, leaving the listener to take whatever conclusion they want from it.
Take “Cantona”, written about his late-dad and named after his late-dad’s hero, a song he describes as “the most personal” he’s made so far. Its narratives are far from straight: they waver, jump around, they circle you and close in until the beat drops and Carner’s voice is all that’s left. It raises to a breaking point, as though his vocals are about to crack. You want to pull back but can’t, then it all melts away, back to Loyle’s safe place, deep in his producer – and best friend – Rebel Kleff’s mellow, nostalgic beat.
“Sometimes I go too far,” he says. “I’ll just think ‘Nah, that’s too real’. But I record things in the moment, you know? I might never feel quite like this ever again.” In this way, his music can often blur the line between hip-hop and spoken word, which he attributes to an early interest in poetry. “Growing up, I was obsessed with a poet called Langston Hughes [key member of the ‘Harlem Renaissance’ literary movement]”, he says. “He used to do poetry with jazz behind him; he was the first person to do that. His work had a big impact on me”.
It's spoken word achieved in the least corny way possible. On Carner’s “BFG”, a track that centres around love and loss, he sings the hook, “Everybody says I’m fucking sad / Of course I’m fucking sad, I miss my fucking dad”. It’s not a chorus that Aubrey would touch but comparing the two is not out of the question. In some ways, Carner is the “kitchen sink drama” version of Drake, the “cup of tea and looking out a council estate window” Drake, the “tell us what really happened that night” Drake. Yet what Carner doesn’t do – some would say almost to a fault – is evoke the cool distance of Drake. You’re right there, in the trenches.
“I write about the things that have really happened to me, and yeah, it’s scary,” he says. “Writing is painful, and it’s nerve-wracking and petrifying to perform it. It’s scary to let all these people in on things in my life, but I couldn’t really do it any other way. I’ve never really written anything that’s not like this. I struggle to write things that aren’t true. Some people, as much as their stuff might be quite honest and open, it doesn’t have the kind of vulnerability to it.”
It's a sacrifice with a wide value. In the UK today, young British men are more troubled than ever – three quarters of all suicides in the UK are being committed by males, and it is the biggest cause of death to men under 45 – and services that can help with anxiety and depression are being targeted by cuts on the regular. A key struggle identified in so many pieces about this topic, is encouraging young men to speak out and recognise problems they have. And when we hear candid lyrics about struggles like this in new British music – about depression, pressure, family life, relationships – it goes a long way to tackling the stigma that causes so many to feel like it should be bottled up and stored privately.
For all the pain and suffering that it can take to write a song as meaningful as “BFG” – that goes for any writers - it’s worth it when it pays off and reaches someone. Carner now reads to young kids at the Croydon Literacy Centre where his mum teaches; he does work for SUDEP (the sudden unexpected death from epilepsy charity), which is how he lost his dad – it’s what drives him. “It’s exciting to get hit up by someone on the other side of the road saying that they feel the same, or that the song has helped them out, or they’ve played it to their mum and now they’re speaking again,” he says. “That’s special”.
Carner may be living through another one of those things at home, yet it’s those moments of connection that he’s striving for. The brief snatches where two people, however distant in geographical terms, can relate over the shared human experience, learn something from it, and get through it together.
You can find Sam on Twitter: @SamDiss