Introspective and understated while never failing to get its message across, his first album in three years is like receiving a postcard from an old friend
A new album from Loyle Carner is like receiving a postcard from an old friend. Carner’s writing is so open, personal and dense that his tales about his ADHD and family issues are ones that fans know well. It’s been three and a half years since Not Waving But Drowning was released, but from the opening track Hate on this third album, it’s a pleasure to welcome him back.
The Carner template remains the same on Hugo – understated, jazzy instrumentation, the long vocal samples, and Carner’s languid delivery are all present and correct. Yet it also feels like a bit of a step up. There’s a confidence to the exhilarating gospel introduction of Nobody Knows (Ladas Road) that only comes from being five years into your career, while long-term collaborator Kwes expertly constructs beautifully cinematic soundscapes to fit in around Carner’s words.
Those words seem even more intensely personal than ever. The themes tackled on Hugo include Carner’s mixed race heritage, parenthood and his own relationship with his late father. There’s even a detour into social issues, with the excellent Blood On My Nikes talking of growing up in the shadow of constant knife crime (“I wasn’t listening to Christine And The Queens, I was listening to 15 young men like me kick a 16″).
Musically, the palette also seems a bit broader: opening track Hate kicks in dramatically with clattering drums and an evocative piano line, while later in the album one of the standout tracks Plastics, is light and jazzy, in sharp contrast to Carner’s furious lyrics, taking in disposable culture, the media and racism (“The plastic guy at the paper that thinks that Kano looks like Wiley“). Homerton is a beautiful midpoint in the album, with muted trumpet framing some musings on parenthood – ending on the spoken word sample of “Sometimes, the parents need the kids more than the kids need the parents”).
It’s that theme of parenthood which raises its head throughout the album – inspired by the birth of his own child, there’s a theme of Carner exploring his own troubled relationship with his late father. The last three songs on Hugo act as a trilogy to end the album on a startling note – A Lasting Place is a gorgeous, piano-led track about the march of time, ending with the pertinent observation of “staring back at the reflections of a grown man, damn but I don’t want to be an old man”.
That’s followed by Pollyfilla which talks of insecurity and imposter syndrome as it relates to being a father, before closing the album on HGU, a tale of forgiveness of his father and ultimately serenity. Like the rest of the album, it’s introspective and understated while never failing to get its message across. He may not receive the accolades and acclaim that the likes of Stormzy or Dave garner, but Hugo is more proof that Loyle Carner is one of the foremost names in UK rap and hip-hop.