Words: Charlie Lake
In Hugo, the 3rd studio album from South London artist Loyle Carner, there is a central, pressing question which is the foundation of every beat and bar on the record: “I’m young, Black, successful and have a platform - but where do I stand in a world like ours?”
The answer is found in the third album from Ben Carner-Loyle, or as he is better known – Loyle Carner. Long has Loyle been UK rap’s ‘Mr Nice Guy’. His raps have been masterfully concocted, yet still unchallenging in a certain way. Before the first lead single ‘Hate’ had been unleashed, which saw him vent his frustrations on racial politics, fame, and his upbringing, the singer-rapper had been almost completely anodyne in his verses. Not only that, but his delivery has always been somewhat nonchalant and laidback. Now, however, he wants to refute this title and go above and beyond peoples’ expectations and he truly achieves that here.
Photo: Sirus Gahan
Hugo sees Carner taking a sharp detour from his previous work, putting it down to lockdown and the “hedonistic side of career being stripped away. There were no shows, no backstage, no festivals, no photoshoots”. Battling against writer’s block was never a problem for Loyle – he knew exactly what he wanted to say with this latest instalment. If anything, writing in these tumultuous times gave the artist a renewed sense of artistic freedom, enabling him to reach deeper into his own mind than ever before.
The end product is his most cathartic and ambitious album to date and cements Carner as one of the most pioneering and potent young talents out there right now. With urgent delivery and gloriously cinematic production, Carner tackles both the personal: “You can’t hate the roots of a tree, and not hate the tree. So how can I hate my father without hating me?” and the political: “I told the Black man he didn’t understand I reached the white man he wouldn’t take my hand” (from Track 2, ‘Nobody Knows’).
"Often in painful, deeply uncomfortable ways, focusing on Carner’s experience of becoming a father in the context of growing up without contact with his biological father."
The immaculate production can be attributed to renowned producer Kwes (who’s worked with Solange, Kelela, Nao) and enables Carner to take a step up in Hugo’s sound and its stories. The 10-track album oscillates between intimate neo-soul moments to hard-hitting hip hop, with immediate, infectious bangers, rich with samples. ‘ Non-musicians are also sampled across various songs on the record; mixed-race Guyanese poet John Agard and youth activist and politician Athian Akec. In doing this, Carner moves seamlessly from micro to macro, confronting everything from strained relationships within the family to the societal tears caused by entrenched classism. However, the emphasis on the political adds to, and doesn’t at all take away from the enjoyability of Hugo.
Photo: Wonderland Magazine
He wears his heart on his sleeve, revealing traumas in his personal life that he has never revealed before – often in painful, deeply uncomfortable ways, focusing on Carner’s experience of becoming a father in the context of growing up without contact with his biological father. The song ‘Polyfilla’, with a beautiful backdrop of a warm and melodic beat, sees Carner reiterate his desire to “break the chains in the cycle” of dysfunctional Black fatherhood with his bringing up of his son Hugo and at the same time acknowledging that his father “grew up in a world where nobody showed him how to love or nurture” – a heart-breaking realisation of a truth, that could explain a lot of his father’s actions.
"Each explores the same themes of fatherhood, trauma, generational ‘curses’, racial identity and overcoming struggles with hope and strong relationships with those around us."
This leads into the follow-up track, ‘A Lasting Place’ in which Carner confesses that he will not be perfect in the task of raising his son in a radically different way to the way in which he was brought up by his father, but he speaks to the love he has for Hugo, using his signature lyrical dexterity to master the emotive message here. The final track ‘HGU’ comes to a close with an emotional admission from Loyle, telling his dad: “still I’m lucky yo that we talk”. He finds it within himself to see past his neglect when growing up and shows a degree of forgiveness for the way he was treated. What a way to round off such an emotionally charged record.
Photo: Loyle Carner Twitter
The parallels between Hugo and Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers are too clear to be ignored – in fact, I believe that this is by design. As well as both being incredibly fine-tuned and deeply personal, each explores the same themes of fatherhood, trauma, generational ‘curses’, racial identity and overcoming struggles with hope and strong relationships with those around us. Loyle has been a Kendrick Lamar fan since some of his earliest work and expressed his fondness for the song ‘Father Time’ from Kendrick Lamar’s effort on Twitter, which tells a story of paternal neglect and ‘generational trauma’. It was great seeing the osmosis of ideas from one great artist’s mind to another’s.
Hugo is all about duality; the mix of tender neo-soul with clashing hip-hop, Loyle’s exploration of the white and the black sides of his heritage, his confusion between love and hate for his father, the careful dissection of the micro (himself) and the macro (society), but also the contrast between our struggles and our ambition. This dichotomy is deliberate, but also decisive. He is telling us, track by track, to rise above injustices, to build strong relationships despite previous traumas but most importantly to be ambitious. My only minor gripe would be that I wish there was more of Hugo – which can only be considered a compliment to the album’s quality. The 34-minute runtime has left me on the edge of my seat for the next creative output from Loyle, and I can’t wait to see where he goes with it.