Loyle Carner stands front and centre on the cover of his album, but he is not alone. Family and friends crowd around him on the unkempt lawn, in front of a tenement block. People smile and giggle, nervous with the camera pointed at them. This is a moment repeated a hundred thousand times, same but different, an echo of family gatherings across the length and breadth of the UK.
Hip-hop is supposed to be brutal, frank and honest to reflect the troubled lives of its purveyors. This was true for the originators, it was true for the gangsters and it’s true for modern grime. Rather than turning his razor-sharp pen and honey-dewed drawl to everyday violence, the fraternity of gang life or the escapism of retail therapy, Loyle turns it inwards and creates a record of personal reflection, of pain and doubt and resilience and hope.
The album opener, The Isle of Arran, seduces the listener with its heavenly, gospel-tinged hook – “The Lord will find a way” – and then bares its teeth in a meditation of death, loss and grief that flickers across the flesh like the lash of a whip, pain and diffidence rising with realisation: “Clinging to that whole one/My mother said there’s no love until you show some/So I showed love and got nothing, now there’s no-one/You wonder why I couldn’t keep in tow, son.”
We roll forward and Loyle’s lines – languid, smooth and resonant – lead us into his inner existence. He contemplates the difficulties of early adulthood: struggling to get by, trying to be responsible, and the loss of innocence. Ain’t Nothing Changed is a jazz-infused eulogy to the shedding of childish freedom. He dreams of the past as he struggles with the present: “Trust, I’m all alone panicking to play it safe/This talk of paper chase is forcing me to stay awake/Living in sake of cake, yeah, others will say you’re straight/Say they got my back and that they’re praying Imma pave the way/Like it’s the great escape.”
Like in life, there is also light amongst the darkness here. No Worries shows a more sanguine attitude to adulthood: “Fear loathing on this helter skelter/When all we really need is food, clothing and shelter/Played the hand they dealt ya down ’til the last card/You claim king but only jokers have the last laugh”. In almost self-therapeutic manner, Loyle reminds himself of what’s truly important in life: Love first, success second.
No CD is a highlight. A joyous boom-bap anthem, underwritten with humorous self-deprecation, that serves as a homage both to his love of music and the music that he loves: “Oh please, we ain’t got no P’s/Because we spent all our money on some old CDs/We got some old Jay Zs, couple ODBs/Place ’em up in perfect order ’cause my OCD.”
Family and loyalty are a constantly re-occurring theme. On Florence, Loyle imagines making pancakes with the little sister he never had while, on Mrs C, he speaks of the death of a friend’s mother. Sun of Jean starts as a tribute to his mother and her strength and ends with a poem about him as a child, spoken by his mother. While Loyle may have struggled because the world wouldn’t accept him as he was, he never felt this way with his mother. Their closeness is evident, and in a way that most artists would struggle to speak about with such frankness: “Call me the son of Jean/My little submarine/Me and my mother, there ain’t nothing that can come between/Call me the son of Jean.” There is hope in this track and that really is the conclusion of this record. Look forward; don’t look back because Yesterday’s Gone:
There is so much, which is refreshing about Yesterday’s Gone: its finally crafted beats, its candid discussion of difficult topics and its humour and warmth. There is no one in hip-hop making music quite like this and that makes the album, and Loyle, very special. Both musically and lyrically, it respects the past but looks forward to the future, which is something we can all get better at.
You can grab Yesterday’s gone from Loyle’s website.