In the Middle with Loyle Carner

“People don’t know everything about me!” laughs Loyle Carner as I ask him about the personal depth of his lyrics, “and it’s almost a bit too late to worry about it anyway”. Speaking to the 22-year-old rapper less than a week before his much-anticipated debut album drops, it certainly is too late. Regardless, the effect of this introspective and deeply personal form of rap is part of the reason why Carner is fast becoming one of the biggest names in UK hip-hop.

Despite this growing acclaim, he has had to put up with journalism that has not been entirely fair in the early stages of his career. A few publications have failed to depict the rapper and his music accurately, with a Guardian reviewer describing him as the ‘sentimental face of grime’. “Its just lazy journalism”, explains Carner diplomatically when we discuss the incident, describing it as part of an attempt to produce a “captivating headline” to attract readers.

Aside from these crude early assessments, favourable reception to his album has been widespread. From the first listening of Yesterday’s Gone, it’s easy to appreciate the synthesis between Carner’s lyrics and long-term producer Rebel Clef’s boom bap beats. We talk about the extent to which Clef has been a creative influence on his music: “Massively, especially in the early days when we were really finding our feet. I learnt a lot from him and he taught me a lot about hip-hop”.

The importance of Rebel Clef to Loyle cannot be understated, yet profiles of Carner in newspapers and magazines have often missed this. Some journalists attempt to unpack and reveal the man behind the music by talking about his real name and life events, but they often ignore this musical partnership that makes for such enjoyable listening.

Other artists feature on the album too, with Tom Misch appearing on the track Damselfly. Carner laughs when we talk about Misch, recounting an anecdote about how collaboration between the two was almost thwarted before it had even begun. Having heard Misch’s track Follow at a friend’s party, Loyle headed to his Soundcloud the next day, but was dismayed at what he saw on the page. “It said ‘I don’t work with rappers, don’t bother asking’!” This seemingly ruled out any possible collaboration between the two, so later in his career when he received a message from Misch saying ‘I’m a big fan, I’d love to work with you’, Loyle was pleasantly surprised. “We met up a couple of times, we had loads of mutual friends, and we were very close together South London wise. We just hit it off, we started spending a lot of time together and making a lot of tunes”.

Carner comes to the Belgrave Music Hall in Leeds on February 8, performing to a sold out crowd. “It’s rowdier up there”, Loyle remarks when we speak about the difference between crowds in the north and south. Yet audiences remain diverse throughout the country, with the crowd reflecting the popularity of Carner’s soulful and laidback music. “It’s an eclectic mix; there are seventy-year-olds, those in love with 6 Music, and people you just wouldn’t expect”.

Away from the growing acclaim in the music world, Carner’s work outside of rap is incredibly important and close to home. His cooking project, Chilli Con Carner, teaches cooking skills to young people with ADHD. As someone with ADHD himself, Carner underlines the importance of cooking as an activity that brought him pleasure: “I used to be a bit of a hot head when I was younger, but the kinetic energy and instant gratification [of cooking] really chilled me out”.

Loyle explains, “I wanted to go into culinary school, that was my dream”. Critiquing the ignorance surrounding ADHD, Carner seeks to “shed the stereotype, getting teachers engaged with its existence, rather than just viewing a child as simply badly behaved”.

The album does not shy away from raising awareness either: the song Sun Of Jean ends with a heartfelt poem read by Loyle’s mother about her incredibly active and creative son. “A two-foot tale of trouble… He used to draw on anything… and now he draws with words”. The song, and album, is deeply personal and shows the family connection that flows throughout Carner’s lyrics, epitomised by the album artwork. “It’s an extended family photo, [picturing] everybody who had an impact”. The cover has parallels with Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly artwork, with Carner swapping the White House backdrop for a garden and an appearance from his black poodle, Ringo.

The album, which has debuted at 14 in the charts, displays a reference to the musical work of his late father in its title. “My dad made an album with a song called Yesterday’s Gone which my mum only found after he passed. I listened to the song a few months later and it resonated with me in many ways, and it made sense to pay homage”.

We end our conversation on the topic of his lyrics and their impact: “Hopefully my music pushes more people to get how they’re feeling out in the open. If I can get up on stage and tell a crowd some of my deepest, darkest shit, then people should be able to chat to their mum or their mates about theirs. It’s not scary at all and it’s not a bad thing.”

It’s this candid self-reflection that dominates the lyrics of Yesterday’s Gone’s, with the humbleness and honesty of their author so evident when when he speaks. For one of the most pensive voices in UK rap, the future is deservedly bright.

Dominic Johnson

(Image: NME)

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