I remember exactly where I was last year when I first heard Loyle Carner. My hands were gripping the steering wheel, my mouth running with questions for my aux-cord-manning mate, who was growing impatient after being forced to play “NO CD” for the fifth time.
Mind you, it’d been four long years since my last love-at-first-listen, another moment I can recall right down to the finest detail; I was sipping on a vanilla milkshake in a Sydney café and missed half a conversation, ears carefully tuned into Lorde’s “Royals” playing softly in the background.
Why he isn’t one of rap’s biggest names at the moment is a wonder to me. At age 22, the South London wordsmith (born Ben Coyle-Larner) has been strolling onto the international radar channelling the same measured ease with which he delivers his music. Carner’s debut album ‘Yesterday’s Gone’, the follow up to his 2014 EP ‘A Little Late’, is brimming with vivid diaristic recounts that put to sleep Hollywood rap’s “Pussy/Money/Weed” aggression, without sacrificing sonic power.
Oxford Art Factory roared the moment Carner took to the stage, mic in one hand and his other clutching his late step-father’s Eric Cantona jersey. The importance of family to Carner’s creativity is evident across all his musings, opener “The Isle Of Arran” – named after his late grandfather’s hometown – is a blockbuster live. Certified by the sold out room joining in for an emphatic singalong of the gospel-infused chorus.
One need only look at Carner’s Spotify playlist to get a glimpse of the artists that have influenced his work; it features countless nods to early nineties jazz and soul-tinged hip hop, and the classic boom bap beats that inspire his cuts. His delivery, however, is entirely his own, walking the line between poetry and rap with his enunciation lending itself gracefully to his erudition.
Despite having toured alongside heavyweights like MF Doom, Nas, and Joey Badass over the last few years, selling out a place as “fucking FAR!” as Australia on his inaugural visit has Carner humbled, the crowd’s energy raised to electric levels in response. Behind Carner on the decks was long-time collaborator and “best friend” Rebel Kleff, who steered the atmosphere with paced-out beats and scratched disks between bars.
“Mean It In The Morning” showcased Carner’s sensitive sentiments, his reflections on “Waiting on a day’s pay / promising to post checks” opening the door to his teenage years, when he dropped out of drama school to become the breadwinner for his family. Mixing in older material, Carner had the audience wrapped around each word, heartstrings pulled with brutally honest lines about loyalty on “Mufasa” (“They’re saying I should write bout something else / All I think about’s my mother and myself”), to dealing with grief on ‘A Little Late”s “BFG” (“Everybody says I’m fucking sad / Of course I’m fucking sad, I miss my fucking dad.”)
Carner’s vocals were languid in the mix, animated in his candid introductions, almost raising a brush to paint the 3-4 minute vignettes. “I wrote this for my mother. She always wanted a daughter, and I thought of what it would be like to have a little sister,” he said of “Florence”, before rapping about making pancakes like his nan, freckles and secret hand-shakes. It’s definitely not all sugar and spice though, “Stars and Shards” and the bass heavy “NO CDs”, on which Carner trades fierce verses about old friends and pays tribute to rap greats respectively, stretched out his genre-transcending wings in full.
There were moments of pure magic though, when the beat cut out and it was just Carner’s chops on display, like the a cappella “+44”, and when he announced a heartfelt poem as, “something new I wrote the other day…” (which he premiered after politely asking the audience’s permission, of course). Another new track with Kleff had arms raised, everyone catching on quick to the bouncy chorus about mundane “9 to 5” living.
It quickly wound down though; there wasn’t a dry eye in sight when the night reached Carner’s mum’s nostalgic poem on “Sun Of Jean”. As the raw outpour flowed deep, the realisation set in that it would be the last time we’d see Carner before he fills stadiums with his sound. “Yesterday’s Gone”, the album’s namesake, taken from a secret acoustic demo his step-father recorded, brought the evening full circle, tying up cathartic ends and providing a moment of meditation for the mastery all had just witnessed.
Photos by Connor Phipps.