Loyle Carner is Expectedly Lyrical and Low-Fidelity w/ Sophomore Album
Evan Dale // April 21, 2019
In 2017, Loyle Carner’s debut album, Yesterday’s Gone introduced the UK lyricist as the latest grammatically-endowed, story-weaving genius in a long tradition of artists boasting a similar skillset in British hip-hop history. And two years later, his sophomore, Not Waving, But Drowning is a dominant display of his growth musically, personally, and emotionally over the course of the past two years. Mirroring Yesterday’s Gone as an emotion-evoking, relatable, all-encapsulating marathon project built of 15 tracks, Not Waving, But Drowning is very much the kind of project we were expecting Carner to deliver, but that was never a guarantee that it would take shape. Even through the course of his leading single releases – Ottolenghi featuring jazz experimentalist, Jordan Rakei, You Don’t Know featuring bubbly performances from Rebel Kleff & Kiko Bunn, Loose Ends which drew into the picture Jorja Smith’s impeccable range – there was no guarantee that the final product would live up to its predecessor or its incredibly stacked and wide-ranging trio of preliminary singles. After all, the sophomore slump is more common than not. But now that Carner’s album here, it’s clear that he is who we all thought he was and much, much more.
Not Waving, But Drowning is arguably by certain measures – lyricism, story-telling ability, humility, honesty, and rarity – the greatest hip-hop project to cross our path this year on either side of the Atlantic. And it gets there with so much ease and effortlessness that it’s honestly a little difficult to absorb its depths. The entire project rests on a foundation of laid-back production, effortless deliveries, mellow instrumentation, and raw, relatable emotion. Amongst a wide swatch of experimental and genre-denying hip-hop albums in an era where the melodic and the lyrical are so far removed from one another that genres have all but collapsed entirely, Not Waving, But Drowning is of the timelessness to last long after modern musical trends have faded, and new ones have begun. And yet, it’s still very much a product of the modern hip-hop lexicon.
It belongs in the ranks of Noname’s Room 25 (the project that we named 2018’s best) where hip-hop of its truest and most storied foundations never fails. But to get there requires something – somethings, really – particularly special from its creator. What separates and has always separated Loyle Carner from even his most lyrically-centered peers are his voice, the auditory aesthetic of his instrumentation, and his unendingly mellow character. All three exude at a complimentary scale something paradoxically simplistic.
Throughout his entire catalogue, Carner has made a habit of keeping the calmness and collectedness of his vocal approach subdued, even when shifting in and out of cadence and a myriad of emotions. And that’s incredibly difficult to do. Somehow, every word is crystal clear, relatable, and comes across more like a conversation with his audience than it does a hip-hop track. A smooth, South London accent walks everyone listening hand-in-hand through stories, anecdotes, and conversations about life, love, and the loss of both.
Not Waving, But Drowning, like much of Carner’s canon is a celebration of timeless production. In accordance with his lyrical dynamism, the choice for jazz-inspired, instrumentally-driven beats grants the album an undeniable and unapologetic sense of the old school. Simple production built mostly of classic drumkits, piano keys, and occasional brass draw the entire album together as one classic composition.
There is something to be said about the open-book, backpack style of UK hip-hop that Carner has established for himself. The things that make him different – though oftentimes the things that make him such a polarizing musical figure – are the things make his music bold and experimental in their own right. At a time where nearly every hip-hop artist is trying so hard to do something undone and unheard of, Carner returns to hip-hop’s roots, masters them, and lays it all on the line without hiding behind experimental production or vocal absurdities. At a time when everyone is trying to be so different from one another and the music to come before them, they have in turn all become the same, and Carner alone with only a handful of others now stand on the minority end of modern hip-hop. And Not Waving, But Drowning being such a vulnerable album, is particularly courageous and rare.