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Loyle Carner - Hugo | Review

An ambition album that breaks new ground for Loyle Carner

By Isabelle Hampton-Zabotti

Loyle Carner’s hugo could have easily fallen into a worn-out pattern of confessional rap. Yet, it manages to forge new paths through its exploration of identity and history. While I have heard Loyle Carner’s music before—and was a fan of his collaborations with Tom Misch and Jordan Rakei—his upcoming album has encouraged me to rediscover the 28-year-old South London rapper. Carner’s 10-track album combines rap with jazz and gospel instrumentals. It begins with a story about a boy who grows up amidst confusion and grief and finishes with the man who emerged on the other side.

The first track, ‘Hate’, starts strong, balancing a snare-heavy garage beat with a gentle piano riff. Carner starts the song with a near-aggressive delivery, but listeners come to understand that it isn’t hate being discussed, it's fear. Carner exposes his insecurities, stating ‘I fear the colour of my skin, I fear the colour of my kin.’ Along with hate, he talks about love too, not shying away from dichotomies that he fails to resolve. The following track, ‘Nobody Knows (Ladas Road)’, is also interesting: Carner explains that it is ‘about fatherhood, forgiveness and the gaps between. The space between absolutes.’ With an absent biological father and a stepfather who passed away when he was twenty, Carner’s experience of fatherhood is expressed in ‘Nobody knows’ with heavy emotions: ‘you can't hate the roots of the tree, and not hate the tree. So how can I hate my father without hating me?’

Photo Courtesy of Jack Davidson

The space that hugo explores isn't just between emotions alone, but also the nebulous space between black and white, which is your constant state of being when you are mixed race. In ‘Nobody Knows (Ladas Road)’, he says, ‘I told the black man he didn’t understand, I reached the white man he wouldn’t take my hand’. Carner’s experiences taught him that, while he can’t be fully understood by the Black community, he knows that he is also fully excluded from Whiteness. This is an experience that, being mixed race who grew up in a predominately white area, I know too well. Whereas many rappers align themselves fully with the Black community, hugo shows that Carner isn’t afraid to express this discontinuity; he finds himself being both and neither, and not being able to neatly tie these threads together. ‘Georgetown’ likewise traverses identity, and is rich in its intertextuality. Under three minutes long, the song features John Agard, an Afro-Guyanese poet born in Georgetown (hence the song’s name). He begins with a commentary on the term ‘half-caste’, then, Carner’s hook rises above a sumptuous bass: ‘I’m black like the key on the piano, white like the key on the piano’. Carner is both—and he is neither.

Despite this, musically, Carner does not shy away from following the precedents of Black artists. Using a recurring sample from Pastor T.L. Barrett & the Youth for Christ Choir’s ‘Nobody Knows’, he borrows connotations from Gospel music. The song acknowledges Gospel music’s significance in the historical development of African-American music, but also falls in line with current usage of Gospel in hip-hop. For example, another Pastor T.L. Barrett song, ‘Father I Stretch My Hands’, was an iconic hook sampled on Kanye’s track, ‘Father Stretch My Hands, Pt.1’. However, hugo’s other tracks, such as ‘HGU’ and ‘A Lasting Place’, feature piano melodies and lo-fi style beats which are closer to Carner’s previous style of easy-listening hip-hop. This could be considered a weakness of this album, as many songs are too alike in sound to be entirely distinct and memorable from each other. However, what is arguably repetitive is still done well.

In hugo, there is a gamble: vulnerability does not guarantee authenticity, but I believe that this risk pays off. While Carner risks distance from the Black community, he also explores the reality of the mixed-race lived experience in the UK, which is not often examined. While it's a harsh reality, it's also beautiful—an impression achieved by the delicate piano melodies that offset the darker tones of the lyrics. As ‘Nobody Knows (Ladas Road)’ has already over a million listens on Spotify, but whether the album will gain awards is yet to be seen. Nonetheless, I think it will be a stronger contender for the 2023 Brit Awards hip-hop category.

Loyle Carner’s hugo is out now on streaming platforms


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