When trawling through the release lists of albums, I try to identify at least some albums that are out of my comfort zone, in order to ‘broaden my musical horizons’, or something inane like that. It’s fair to say that hip-hop is somewhat of a no-go zone for me, so it was with trepidation that I started listening to this debut album from Loyle Carner. What I did not expect was something this inventive, earnest and impressive.
From the opening track of the album, The Isle Of Arran, I knew something was different about this album. Backed by gospel-style chorals, Carner explores the theme of absent father figures, and what this means to children growing up. This is an incredibly personal song – his father left him at a very young age, and he was raised by his mother and stepfather. The message of this track comes along very clearly in the hard-hitting, verse-ending lyric: “there’s nothing to believe in, believe me”.
The personality of the lyrics is one of the key aspects of this album. Carner delivers his vocals in a softer tone than is normal in hip-hop, which initially comes across as potentially jarring; but when combined with the subject matter, and the emphasis the album places on soul and jazz backing tracks, it doesn’t take long to get used to it. It also enables Carner to discuss deep concepts such as responsibility and respect for your family without coming across as anodyne – not that his lyrics would enable that to be the case anyway.
But in addition to this, there are some truly unique song concepts on this album, the likes of which I have never heard before. The most prominent of these is Florence, a song in which Carner fantasizes about the little sister he doesn’t have, and more specifically about him making pancakes for her. When explained here, that likely sounds saccharine and laughable, but Carner pulls it off brilliantly.
Carner is not the only vocalist on this album – and I say vocalist because he also sings on parts of this record, and does so very well. But there are features from other rappers, including multiple from his producer Rebel Klepp. While these features don’t do much to detract from the album, they certainly lack the honest delivery that makes Carner’s lyricism so special. Also featuring on the album – and multiple times – is his mother. She appears in Swear – a sub one-minute sketch about how she taught him to swear – Son of Jean, where she delivers an artful spoken-word outro about Carner’s little brother, and the closing track Yesterday’s Gone, where the two sing a ballad that was seemingly recorded in one take. Swear in particular seems like a concept that would fail on lesser albums, but the sheer sincerity that this album exudes allows it to exist.
The music on this album deserves a mention too. Carner favours a mix of soul and jazz to provide smooth backing for his generally more tempered rapping – and this creates rich, heady style that he exploits to the full. Listen to the song Damselfly, and tell me it doesn’t make you relaxed. But, to contrast this, there are more old-fashioned hip-hop call backs – on NO CD, blues rock guitar is used as the backing, and layers and progresses brilliantly. Similarly, Stars and Shards utilizes a bluesy guitar: both of these songs enable Carner to rap slightly more aggressively, and are both standouts on the album.
By the time the album closes with the titular acoustic ballad Yesterday’s Gone, you’re left with the sense that Carner has poured his heart and soul into this album. The music is so genuine, so intricately-crafted, that you just cannot dislike what is done here. There seems to be a sense amongst some that Carner is the future of hip-hop, and I truly hope so, because this immensely talented artist very clearly has more to contribute to the genre. Everything about this wonderful album comes together so, so well, and I am certain that it will stick with me for quite some time.
Best Songs: The Isle of Arran, Damselfly, Florence, Stars & Shards, NO CD, Son of Jean, Yesterday’s Gone