Passionate and political
Charlotte Grimwade
13:04 19th October 2022

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It’s difficult to comprehend Loyle Carner’s journey since the release of his debut album, Yesterday’s Gone, back in 2017. Five years later and the British rap icon has released his third album, hugo. The ten-track album marks a clear turning point in Carner’s work – it’s noticeably different in tone from his sophomore album Not Waving, But Drowning. hugo is simultaneously political and personal. It highlights the complex relationship between race, fame and Carner’s new identity as a father.

Despite the addictive sense of energy and drive running through hugo, each track still maintains the same quirks that make Carner’s music feel so intimate and personal. Background coughs and other moments of recording studio ambience reflect Carner’s musical charm, transporting listeners to the album’s source. It’s a reminder that Carner can and will perform this all live, that this is part of a broader creative process.

The album’s three opening tracks were all released as singles over the past few months. At its core, Carner’s music has always been about poetry and its impact, with third track ‘Georgetown’ exemplifying this. ‘Georgetown’ starts with a reading of ‘Half-Caste’ by Guyanese poet John Agard, transitioning into an effortlessly cool groove and Carner’s mellow rap musings. In combination with opening track ‘Hate’, from the beginning of hugo it’s clear that Carner is embracing the most passionate and political aspects of his music.

The next four songs exemplify this sentiment. There’s a great sense of momentum throughout ‘Speed Of Plight’, despite the simple instrumentation typical of Carner’s music. He maintains the ambiance and mellowness seen in much-loved tracks like ‘Ottolenghi’ or ‘Florence’, but whilst also shifting into more intense subject matter. A few tracks in, and hugo’s dexterity is confirmed. ‘Homerton’ follows, featuring the stunningly soulful voices of JNR Williams and Olivia Dean, as themes of fatherhood and legacy blend to perfection. Vocal melodies smoothly flow into Carner’s gentle and accessible rap, assisted by jazz chords and an engaging trumpet solo.

The mood shifts considerably in ‘Blood On My Nikes’ and ‘Plastic’. Both tracks have incredible rhythm sections, emphasising their dark subject matter. One of the most impactful vocal segments on hugo is activist Athian Akec’s speech about knife crime in ‘Blood On My Nikes’. It’s a stark and powerful reminder of Carner’s intentions with this album and achieves one of the principal aims of his music: sparking further thought and action. ‘Plastic’ is the ideal follow-up from the intensity of ‘Blood On My Nikes’, maintaining the energy laid down previously. With harsh plosives repeated throughout, Carner symbolically employs more electronic effects by the end, as the song literally gets more robotic and ‘plastic’.  

"’s clear that Carner is embracing the most passionate and political aspects of his music."

After ‘Plastic’, the mood of hugo quickly yet seamlessly changes. Carner goes from engaging with broader social issues and race, to offering up some of the most personal tracks he’s released in the past few years. If it weren’t for Carner’s musical and emotional intelligence, this shift might not work so effortlessly and elegantly. hugo is a masterclass in connecting micro and macro themes – from social issues to intimate family dynamics. ‘A Lasting Place’ summarises the intent of the entire album. “We’re staring back at the reflections of a grown man” raps Carner, highlighting the duality of hugo’s central message. The album is an opportunity for both Carner and the listener to reflect and consider his multifaceted identity. It’s his musical reckoning with himself and the man he’s become over the past five years of success and personal achievement. There’s a lovely homemade feel in ‘A Lasting Place’, which is slightly contrasted in subsequent track, ‘Pollyfilla’.

‘Pollyfilla’ is an introspective look into coming-of-age, masculinity and fatherhood. The song is a simultaneous letter to Carner’s absent father and new-born son: “anyone could make you, but it’s your father that could raise you.” Carner is known as a relatively private person, despite the emotional intensity of his work. hugo reflects his increasing sense of openness. Beyond critical acclaim, Carner’s music is so enjoyable purely because of the catharsis it provides, whether you’re simply streaming or are lucky enough to watch him perform live. What’s even more clear is the satisfaction Carner gains from writing and performing, with ‘Pollyfilla’ highlighting this newfound clarity.

‘HGU’, the last song to feature on hugo, is arguably one of the most impactful and impassioned. It’s intense and powerful but ends with a reminder of Carner’s down-to-earth sense of self. After contending with Carner’s attempt to “rewrite the ending and the prequel”, listeners finish hugo by hearing a regular conversation between Carner and another individual after the end of a recording session. We’re reminded that regardless of the fame, Carner is a regular guy from South London. hugo is his impressive foray into exploring identity. What’s most apparent is that, aside from being a son and now a father, Loyle Carner is undoubtedly an incredibly talented artist.

hugo lands on October 21st.

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