Album of the Week: Loyle Carner leaves no stone unturned on hugo

Loyle Carner poses in front of autumnal background ahead of the release of new album Hugo, shot by Jack Davidson Loyle Carner, shot by Jack Davidson

By Danny Munro (he/him)

Three and a half years on from his sophomore release, Not Waving, But Drowning, Loyle Carner is back with the highly-anticipated hugo.

Written mainly during the dark days of the covid lockdowns, hugo is an album that was birthed when Loyle Carner was deprived of the usual frivolities that go hand in hand with being a successful rapper – and it shows.

Having emerged into the underground rap scene circa 2015 thanks to the success of the homemade A Little Late EP, Carner’s jazz-infused, lo-fi beats and honest lyrics about his close relationship with his mother and his turbulent relationship with his father have earned him the position of UK rap’s resident nice guy.

Though only consisting of ten songs and spanning just 35 minutes in length, hugo shows right from the off that underneath his calm exterior, Carner is harbouring anger, stress, and a great deal of anxiety – as he tries to balance several spinning plates at once.

The opener and lead-single, ‘Hate’, shows Carner at arguably the most aggressive we’ve ever seen him, as he laments various issues – from wide-scale injustices like police brutality to the personal feeling of external dread that comes as you feel time slipping away from you.

This idea that time is getting the better of him is a reoccurring theme for Carner on hugo. While still only 28, Carner’s life has changed drastically since we last heard from him, after he welcomed a baby boy into the world during the pandemic. “Is the world moving fast for you as well?” Carner asks his listeners on ‘Speed of Plight’. Though we all lost valuable time to covid, Carner became a dad, and it’s clear that he is still trying his best to comprehend just how much this change of responsibility has altered his outlook on and his priorities in life.

Hugo proceeds with the other two pre-released singles, ‘Ladis Road (Nobody Knows)’ and ‘Georgetown’. The former paints a picture of Carner’s anxiety, while addressing his complicated relationship with his father, a feeling he summarises with the line – “You can’t hate the roots of the tree and not hate the tree / So how can I hate my father without hating me?”

The latter sees Carner team up with Guyana-born patois poetry legend John Agard, as the pair question what it means to be a mixed-race man in 2022. The video for the track, which saw Loyal visit Guyana’s capital, Georgetown, offers possibly the strongest visuals we’ve seen from Carner and his team thus far.

Carner’s desire to use his platform to promote positive change shines through in ‘Blood On My Nikes’, as the rapper recounts a traumatic encounter with violence from his childhood, featuring an eery hook from Wesley Joseph, who repeats the line “Mother, I lost a friend / Mother, I’m lost again”. Seeing out the track is a snippet of a speech on knife crime made by former youth politician Athian Akec.

While hugo strides confidently in a different direction from LC’s previous projects, the likes of ‘Homerton’ and ‘A Lasting Place’ employ the typically chilled-out, stripped-back beats that will satisfy the Carner fans who crave a return to the sound of Yesterday’s Gone era.

“They say that time waits for no man”, raps Carner on A Lasting Place, a rather basic reflection that perhaps resonates more deeply with me than it should.

I first saw Carner live in Edinburgh back in 2017, just a couple of weeks after the release of Yesterday’s Gone. I was on the cusp of turning 16 at the time, and I still smile at the thought of a baby-faced Carner, then aged 22, drowning in a Black Watch kilt, as he attempted to fill the Liquid Rooms with some of his earliest musings on love, loss and identity.

It dawned on me recently that when I see Carner next February on the hugo tour, I’ll be the same age as he was when we first crossed paths all those years ago in Edinburgh. In what feels like a click of the fingers, Carner is now a father in his late 20s and, though I’m still young, I can’t bring myself to withhold a brief moment of existentialism. Thinking of how quickly those years went by, I know that soon I too will be 28 and quickly I find myself asking the same question as Carner – how do you make time stop?

Loyle Carner at The Liquid Rooms, Edinburgh, 04/02/17

The penultimate ‘Polyfilla’ tells us that while Carner has his insecurities, he’s still striving to care for his son better than his father did him. The track provides one of the album’s hardest-hitting lines in “When I was younger I wanted to be famous / Now that I’m older I wish that I was nameless”, as Carner suggests that perhaps having the platform that he does isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.

After several listens of hugo, one can’t help but worry for Carner. Though on paper he has it all: fame, wealth, adoring fans, and a positive platform, the raw vulnerability that he conveys in his latest project shows us a Carner we haven’t seen before – an insight into a seemingly level-headed artist who behind the scenes is struggling to deal with a lifestyle that so few people can relate to.

Thankfully the closer, ‘HGU’, provides what we can hope to be some well-needed closure. Having previously featured his mother, Jean, on his first two albums, Carner swaps her voice for his father’s, revealing to us a rare snippet of a relationship that we’ve heard him rap about on so many occasions. The pair can be heard casually going back and forth as they arrange a time to meet up again the following week, prefaced by Carner’s album concluding bar: “still I’m lucky yo that we talk”, a fitting, emotional conclusion for an ambitious and revealing project.

Loyle Carner’s third album, hugo, is released on Friday, October 21 on EMI Records – pre-save it here.