In the years that have passed since Loyle Carner’s last album, Not Waving, but Drowning, fired at us, a lot has changed in the life of the British rapper. Not only did his world, just like ours, come to a complete standstill for a while due to the well-known corona pandemic, but he also became a father for the first time. The lockdowns gave him plenty of time to get used to that new role, but also to reflect on that same fatherhood and his own identity as a half-white, half-black man in a society that is unfortunately still characterized by racism and injustice. . Carner has never hidden in his music how difficult he sometimes finds it to navigate the world from his position. His bicultural identity and the lack of a father figure formed both on his debut Yesterday’s Gone from 2017 as on that Not Waving, but Drowning of prominent themes two years later. In recent years, however, the Londoner has gained new perspectives, precisely because he suddenly had so much time to think about it and because he suddenly became the father of a son, and thus also gathered enough inspiration for a third album.
When that big third hugo was announced, we wondered if Loyle Carner would safely build on the groundwork he had laid with his two previous albums, or if the Brit would try something new for once. on both Yesterday’s Gone as on Not Waving, but Drowning he showed himself from a soft side with laidback, jazzy beats, a slow flow and a touch of melancholy. This was very successful on its debut, but we already got a bit bored of its brave successor. So we hoped that hugo would give us a reason not to write it off completely. Luckily for us (and for him) we don’t have to, because with hugo Loyle Carner brings not only the best album in his repertoire to date, but also one of the best records of the year.
What hugo puts it in a different category from its predecessors from the very first moment, is that the longplayer is characterized by Carner’s fury. Although we sometimes heard this anger hinted on his previous albums, it plays on hugo an extremely prominent role. Once the rock-solid album opener “Hate” kicks off, it becomes clear that his anger cannot be ignored. Against a soundtrack of thumping drums and a solid bass, Carner not only expresses his fears, but especially his anger at the hateful world in which he is constantly confronted with his skin color. It may be uncomfortable for white people unaffected by racism to listen to Carner’s fierce verbiage, but the fact is that what he describes in “Hate” is the painful reality for a very, very large number of people.
That anger is once again central to the practically perfect “Nobody Knows (Ladas Road)”. It’s not the first song ever in which the rapper explores his mixed heritage and missing a father, but he’s never done it so incredibly direct as on this one. “I told the black man, he didn’t understand / I reached the white man, he wouldn’t take my hand,” Carner said in frustration. “Nobody Knows (Ladas Road)” is an incredibly effective explanation of the complex feeling of being accepted nowhere by your bicultural identity, and will probably bring a lot of recognition for everyone who also has such a background. Carner’s anger also oozes from the intriguing “Blood On My Nikes”, in which he makes short shrift of the political climate in England and the increase in fatal stabbings among young people. When we hear the young activist Athian Akec give a witty speech about those stabbings at the end of the song, we get a big lump in our throat.
While we cannot deny that anger plays a very important role in hugo and that it is a very legitimate emotion, this third Loyle Carner album also shows once again that anger is actually always rooted in deep sadness. We hear this, for example, on the captivating “Speed Of Plight” (which by the way is on the FIFA23 soundtrack) and the mature piano song “Homerton”, on which he is accompanied by Olivia Dean and JNR WILLIAMS. His grief is most evident on the tearjerkers “A Lasting Place” and “Polyfilla”. Both songs explore the trauma of growing up without a father with a vulnerability we’ve never heard of with Loyle Carner.
Both “A Lasting Place” and “Polyfilla” are accompanied by a jazzy, chill piano that reminds us of Not Waving, but Drowning. Yet both songs are a lot more mature and introspective than what we heard on that record. The first explores his relationship with his mother and how grateful he is for her loving upbringing. Tears well up in our eyes when the Brit raps: ‘The love is great / To raise the man that you hate / Growing in the man that you make.’ In contrast, on “Polyfilla,” Carner focuses on the theme of intergenerational trauma, where traumas are passed on from one generation to the next. He longs to break the vicious circle with his son, but acknowledges his fear that he will fail in parenting like his own father. It is a subject that some find it difficult to identify with. Yet Carner conveys the complex feelings in such a frank and straightforward way that it’s quite easy to understand where his grief comes from. The diptych is effortlessly a highlight on the album, which is a great achievement on a record that consists only of highlights.
Of hugo Loyle Carner not only makes it clear that he’s outdone himself, but that he’s playing at a completely different level than many of the others who released a record this year. The album is a beautifully cohesive work that explores the complexities of fatherhood, the influence of childhood trauma and a bicultural identity in an incredibly honest way. Carner delves into the conflicting feelings in his psyche in a way that takes a lot of maturity and daring, and works his way effortlessly into our hearts and year-end lists. It’s a real lesson in vulnerability, this one hugoand undoubtedly one of the most beautiful we heard this year.
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