“If you love your mum make some noise!” is perhaps an unexpected call-and-response at any live performance, let alone a hip-hop show. Yet for twenty-year-old Loyle Carner, a rapper who unabashedly embraces the sentimental; themes of the domestic are just as crucial to his sound as his consistently smooth delivery. Carner’s breakthrough EP A Little Late may easily be mistaken for a headphone album. With its strength situated in the soulful, melodic production’s capacity to showcase Carner’s candid lyrical aptitude, the impressive debut was poignant, but ran the risk of being more personal than performative. Instead, the university dropout achieves what many rappers cannot: a live performance that eclipses its studio counterpart. Opening with BFG, written in ode to his late stepfather, Carner effortlessly dissolved between faltering anguish and brazen honesty, ending with the crowd cheering “Of course I’m fucking sad / I miss my fucking dad”.
Despite the complexity of family loss inspiring much of Carner’s material, he succeeded in expressing grief without putting any kind of burden on his audience. Indeed he consciously struck a balance, declaring “enough of this soppy stuff!” before launching into the more optimistic of his tracks. Ain’t Nothing Changed features production from best friend and steady collaborator Rebel Kleff that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Slum Village or Madlib beat tape. Inspired by YouTube and Instagram comments complaining “every fucking song’s the fucking same”, the track expresses the relationship of mutuality between Carner and his listeners that becomes apparent throughout the show. Just as he confesses to reading their online criticisms, despite being his first headline tour, his fans were distinctively well versed, with wide-eyed interjections of disbelief from Carner as they sang along. Later sharing a bottle of whisky with the audience, such a gesture seemed notably apt, having already tackled the most intimate of emotions alongside their cheers of support.
While his delivery was near perfect, Carner could have captivated his audience with his personality alone. Rejecting the machismo and self-aggrandisement that have proved successful tools for his grime contemporaries, Carner’s charm is both self-deprecating and audaciously self-confessional. Sensitivity in hip-hop is by no means a new development, with the subject of ‘dead-beat dads’ addressed in Carner’s Tierney Terrace explored by artists from Rick Ross to Earl Sweatshirt. But his commentary throughout the show – from excitably announcing his mother’s decision to adopt, to his criticism of his biological father – ensure that emotional realities are not just inspiring subjects but are also integral to Carner as an artist.
Before ending the show, he explained that as his late stepfather was a musician, Carner dreamed of sharing a stage with him. Cantona is the song he wrote in the weeks following his death, explaining in interview “he was my dad’s hero, and the way he looked up to him was the way I looked up to my dad. It made sense to pay homage like that”. As a result Carner brings an Eric Cantona shirt to every show, donning it for the song’s performance.
Finishing the show with an impressive impromptu acapella rendition of Eleven, he ended his set with the same unwillingness as his audience. As an artist endeavouring to enter the territory of emotionally conscious, laid-back hip-hop at a time where grime is dominating the British landscape, Carner is certainly bucking the trend. But then again, this is a rapper who rouses his audience by encouraging them to affirm love for their mothers. Tearing up the rulebook can look a number of ways.
Words: Ruby Atkin