After a remarkable debut, and a poignant yet formula-based follow-up, Loyle Carner has finally tapped into his full potential with a record that sees him tackle subjects like race, gang culture, fatherhood (and absence of it), and societal issues in greater depth than he ever has. It’s his biggest artistic statement to date, and from early impressions, seems like it will be remembered for years to come.
We first heard of the new record with a cryptic video seeing the lyricist exit a car and approach a poster with the album title hugo (the name of his dad’s car), as Loyle scribbles and graffiti a release date and signature underneath. This was already enough to build anticipation after 3 years of waiting and rumours of a Madlib collaboration tape.
hugo sees Loyle teaming up with an exhilarating team of producers, kwes. – most notably involved in some of Slowthai’s greatest tracks, the legendary, arguably greatest producer of all time Madlib, the dreamlike melodies of Jordan Rakei, and Alfa Mist, the nu-jazz riser making a splash in the scene. Whilst only 10 tracks, and 34 minutes long, Loyle says a lot, with his sharpest songwriting, most emotive lyricism, and passionate performances, fuelled by anger, resentment, and bitterness, but by the end – acceptance. Abandoning the formula of his previous two records for something truly unique, the emcee has lived up to the potential of the three flawless singles released beforehand.
The LPs opener, and first single, Hate, sees punchy keys and drums from Nick Mills, Earl Saga, & kwes., whilst Loyle gives his most impassioned, red mist performance to date, something we hear more of throughout this album as fire seems to be lit underneath him, bringing his best verses and most thought-provoking bars to the forefront of the record. As he raps in his low, reverby register, lines like “Yeah, they said it was all that you could be if you were black, playing ball or maybe rap, and they say it like a fact” hit with a tragedy that we’ve not heard from Loyle in this manner of detail.
Nobody Knows (Ladan Road) feels almost like a call back to The Isle Of Arran with its comparable soulful sample and melody, yet this time, Loyle gets deeper into alienation from his father. It’s a tearjerker of a track, and even more so alongside his passionate Jools Holland performance. Loyle is a father himself now, so clearly he has lots to reflect on, with some of the most impactful lines on the whole LP: “ayo, you can’t hate the roots of the tree, and not hate the tree, so how can I hate my father, without hating me?”. It's an incredibly impactful moment on the record for sure, especially if you’re aware of Loyle’s past issues with his father.
The next track, Georgetown, samples legendary Afro-Guyanese poet John Agard, with Madlib on the boards – something fans have been fiending for ever since rumours of a MadLoyle tape after Yesterday. The poetry from John Agard ties in perfectly as Loyle breathes “I'm black like the key on the piano. White like the keys on the piano”. We see Loyle touch on race a lot more here than in past records.
Previously he has stated the best summary of how he feels is Earl Sweatshirt’s lyrics in Chum: “too black for the white kids, and too white for the black”, which perfectly describes Loyle’s conflict on this track. It’s a shame we didn’t get more Madlib on this project, but we’ll take what we can get from debatably the best hip-hop producer of all time. Loyle was actually saving this one for the MadLoyle tape, and apparently, there’s lots more in the vault. Here’s to hoping we hear it someday.
Moving on from here we get our first fresh track from the record, infused with downbeat drums, and production from Jordan Rakei, long-time collaborator Rebel Kleff, & kwes. With incredible wordplay from Loyle, and standout lines like “nobody does it so I did it by myself, I see my brother’s ashes sitting on my shelf”, the wordsmith never fails to choke you up, or even make you smile with clever lines like “If I didn’t make the currency, at least I made a change”. It’s refreshing to hear Loyle finally vent some frustration on this LP, after two very mellow albums, which sort of became his signature sound – in a way here, he’s showing us he’s capable of much more.
Homerton sees production from nu-jazz specialist Alfa Mist, as do many tracks on this record, and you can certainly feel his imprint in the slow grooves of the instrumental. This track certainly features some of the lyricist’s finest penmanship, as he tributes to the birthplace of his son. Every track seems to slowly build a narrative of this new chapter in Loyle’s life, his struggles with race and identity, his battles with the absence of his father, and now facing the responsibility of becoming a father himself. Loyle is able to look at his own flaws as a father, in reflection of his own father’s pitfalls.
One of the most gut-wrenching songs on gang culture in the UK to date comes in the form of Blood On My Nikes, with more involvement from the immensely talented, unexpected trio, Alfa Mist, Jordan Rakei, & kwes. Whilst Wesley Joseph’s crooning Andre 3000-esque hook is nice to hear, a full verse from the rising talent should’ve been a certainty. Lines like “Trust, but like his mother, I cried, When they took the boy's life 'cause he's from the wrong side, Shit, I know I should have thought twice, Ah, washing off the blood from my Nikes”, offer such a poignant take on crime in the UK. Loyle leaves the listener to dwell on the bleak reality we live in currently with an outro from youth activist and politician Athian Akec; “As knife crime claims more lives within our country, never has so much been lost by so many, because of the indecision of so few”. An incredible highlight, and a harrowing view on how the government take little action on impoverished communities.
Plastic, whilst maybe the weakest track on the album (until that beat switch) is still a worthy listen, however, the repetitive manner could’ve been delivered in a more impactful way. The message is still there, following on from Blood On My Nikes, Loyle’s politically conscious bars hold a mirror up to the inaction of government, companies, and society. Whilst also layered with messaging about materialism, it’s nothing that hasn’t been said before, but the interesting production certainly carries the track, with bass from Rocco Palladino adding a crunchy boom-bap feel to the song.
The penultimate track, Pollyfilia, feels a little more standard to Loyle – laid back, casual, but still expressive and melancholic. With a dreamy hook, the track is a reminder of why albums like Yesterday’s Gone were so special. One of my favourite, most moving lines that Loyle’s been rapping since I saw him in Melkweg in 2019, up until I caught him this year, made it onto the album. “They even killed the Wolverine, that was the only father figure that I’d seen”. He used to perform this as an unreleased verse for Loose Ends (featuring Jorja Smith), as can be seen here.
“Yeah, 'cause hurt people, hurt people, especially the ones who weren't equal, the burnt treacle” is an especially strong line from Loyle. HGU brings things full circle, from the album opening with hatred, resentment, frustration, and anger, we’re now at a stage of understanding, with Loyle’s cries of “I forgive you, I forgive you, I forgive you”, clearly about forgiving his dad, and himself, letting go of the weight on his shoulders, and the agony he carries with him. Lines like “After everything we've been through, everything we have seen, the Disney channel on the screen, yo, I can't forget the screams” weigh heavy. Whilst fury has motivated and fuelled Loyle, he seems to have found some form of peace. Loyle literally is playing chess with his wordplay, making the track a technical standout too. He has created chaos and made his anger clear on this record, but now there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
This is an incredibly inventive album that cleverly displays passion and rage without the aggression and intensity of his contemporaries. With some of the finest and most vulnerable storytelling this year, this record certainly competes for the best rap album of 2022 in my eyes, alongside the likes of JID, Knucks, Kendrick Lamar, Denzel Curry, and Ghais Guevera. This album really does feel special and feels like Loyle blossoming into the artist he was always meant to become. Whilst he could still outdo himself, this feels like the biggest statement from an alternative British rap artist since Slowthai’s Nothing Great About Britain and Little Simz’s Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, two albums that will surely down the line be considered classics amongst modern UK hip-hop, and maybe this one will join them too, only time will tell.
Words Jay Fullarton (@jaymfullarton)