Loyle Carner’s 2022 album Hugo openly grapples with his heritage and identity, his performances openly discuss climate change and racism, and he even samples his mother’s own meditations upon childhood and love in Dear Ben. His stage name itself, a spoonerism, is a nod to his dyslexia. Ben Coyle-Larner is nothing if not authentic, honest, and introspective. His combination of boldly personal poetry and soulful, jazz-infused beats stands out not only in the undeniable quality of his music (he boasts a Mercury Prize and three Grammy nominations, plus the NME Award for Best British Solo Act), but in its audacious deviation from the rap tradition.
Where rap has long been associated with gang crime, misogyny and substance abuse, Coyle-Larner is instead both disarmingly honest and boldly personal in virtually every one of his songs. Having been raised in a household of women who speak openly about their feelings, Coyle-Larner is thus able to give voice to his every intimate, painful experience. Being abandoned by his biological father meant that he grew up with his mother and grandmother, and only recently reconnected with his father. Reaching out to him, and the long, painful conversations that ensued as his father taught him to drive, form the basis of his 2022 Mercury Prize-nominated album Hugo.
Hugo tracks the artist’s own complex relationship with his roots. Born and raised in Croydon by a single mother, he knew little of his father’s, and thus his Guyanese heritage. It was not until 2020 that he contacted his estranged father and travelled to Guyana to more closely identify with himself and understand where he is from.
The opening single Hate almost bleeds the heartache and pains associated with a heritage Coyle-Larner has not previously fully understood, ignorance of which he has himself been a victim, “yo, they said it was all that you could be if you were black / Playing ball or maybe rap, and they would say it like a fact” and Georgetown, a hard hitting yet “self-fulfilling” (in his own words) track, refutes the concept of ‘half caste’ to describe his black and white ethnicity. Plastic directly attacks instances of racism and antisemitism in UK media, as well as obsession with materialism and excess: “With the plastic guy at the paper that thinks that Kano looks like Wiley / Yeah, look at this plastic place, yeah, look at those plastic slaves”. Coyle-Larner attacks both greed and decries an instance of antisemitism in UK media in a single breath.
The closing track HGU is fraught with the raw pain of reconnection. The strength and selflessness needed to forgive his estranged father is palpable as the artist questions: “how can I hate my father / without hating me?” To himself be a good father, he needed to be selfless, in the same way he must develop an understanding of his lineage, for “you fear what you don’t understand” (from The Guardian, 2022). As emotionally painful as he knew it would be, restoring his relationship with his father and to his Guyanese roots helped the artist grow. He was thus able to move on from hate and fear, so as to be a better father for his own son.
Coyle-Larner has vocalised his desire to shake the UK hip-hop ‘nice guy’ label. Hugo succeeds in this: he never shies away from facing anger and anguish head-on, whether it be directly towards his father or the UK government, and thus racist stereotypes he has faced growing up. The album is a lyrical journey, resolved in HGU through repeated “I forgive you”s even “after everything we’ve been through”.
One cannot ignore the artist’s musical as well as lyrical development. Coyle-Larner’s recent Royal Albert Hall performance underscores his genius (although I devastatingly was not there, videos of the performance must suffice): the musical arrangement of each one of his songs was pragmatically thought out for maximum emotional impact. Plastic’s intense clamour juxtaposed with the smooth piano of Ice Water, and of course the show featured much of Coyle-Larner’s patented honesty: he even brought on the same speaker featured in Blood on my Nikes. Discussion of knife crime and climate change is certainly not something the rapper fears, and he balanced this perfectly with a striking show that entirely deserved a standing ovation. Every TikTok video of his concert spotlights the passion of both performer and audience. His raw vulnerability and stage presence shines through.
I fully identify with the growing hype surrounding Loyle Carner, yet it is not only the personal he shows in his music that draws one to him. Benjamin Coyle-Larner understandably keeps certain parts of his private life, such as his girlfriend and son, private. What he does show endears one to him. The creation of a cooking school for children with ADHD (‘Chilli Con Carner’) is one such example: he combines a personal passion with the desire to better society, just as he combines genres and musical styles, the personal and political, the joyful and hard-hitting. Loyle Carner is an artist who should not, and in fact cannot, be overlooked, and I for one cannot wait to see what he does next.