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Loyle Carner Has Achieved His American Dream

When a lot of people think of British rap, they often default to drill and grime artists like Skepta or Stormzy, or more recently, Central Cee or Dave. This is probably a function of how they’ve been co-signed stateside by institutions like Drake, whose approval has been a career booster for many artists, or Rolling Loud, the festival that has come to define the image and direction of hip-hop in recent years.

But when I interview London’s Loyle Carner about the disparity between this perception and his own, jazz-influenced approach to thoughtful, traditionalist rap, he dismisses any pressure to conform to the archetype known by both Americans and Brits. “It’s quite nice to have a space where it’s so much more laid back and small as opposed to something that feels so high pressure and big,” he says via Zoom the day after performing his first-ever show in Los Angeles at El Rey Theatre — nearly ten years after making his debut with the 2014 EP A Little Late.

Like Carner’s music, the concert at El Rey is intimate and personal; onstage with his band, he shares the compelling story of how he named his most recent album, 2022’s Hugo, after his dad’s car, where he and his patriarch hashed out nearly 30 years of resentments. As a performer, he’s composed and collected, sweeping from one song to the next with barely a pause to chat until the halfway mark of the set. As befits a veteran performer, if he felt any nerves about performing for the first time in LA, he sure didn’t show it — if anything, he transported his audience to the South London streets of his youth.

Although Hugo was distributed by Virgin EMI, Carner’s operation is basically independent, so playing his first US tour three albums into his career is more of an accomplishment than it may appear at first glance. It took a long, circuitous road to get here, along which the 29-year-old was nominated for a Mercury Prize, stretched his philanthropic wings, and became a father, in 2020. The latter, he says, not only informed the depth and growth he displayed on Hugo but also ensured that he was ready to embrace his own version of the American Dream when he got here.

During our Zoom, he revealed how he became “brave” enough to share some of his most confessional material yet, how fatherhood changed his artistry for the better, and just what it means to make it in America.

That show last night was absolutely incredible. You are one heck of a performer, sir.

Yo, man, thank you so much. Truly, it means a lot, especially in a place like LA. I’ve spent my whole life looking at this place, so yeah, it means a lot.

This is your first time coming to LA ever? How are you enjoying it?

Loving it, man. The weather, man. Fucking hell, it’s beautiful out here. There’s been a few false starts for us. We wanted to come here a few times, and visas got fucked up, or flights got canceled, so it kind of felt like this was the right time to come.

What’s been something that has changed in terms of the touring and the promotion for this album that you didn’t have before or that you’ve learned something and it’s unlocked a new level for you?

I’m a father now, so I guess the main thing was being away trying to look after myself, as opposed to just going out every night and trying to have fun — going to bed early and waking up early as opposed to going to bed late and waking up late. But for the shows, we have a band now, and that’s completely revolutionized the way we play. I feel like I’m part of a community on stage as opposed to just on my own.

It was my best friend’s birthday a couple of days ago, so I took him to the show. And he was just fascinated and enamored with the beats, because I think when I told him, “Oh, it’s this British artist,” he immediately heard in his head Top Boy, like the grime/drill sound. And then you come out there and you have these soulful beats. Is that something you’ve encountered a lot of, people being thrown by the British/American divide?

It’s funny. It’s why it’s such a trip for me being out here, because I grew up on American rap probably more than UK. I loved a lot of UK stuff, but really when I was growing up, I was listening to Common and Most Def, and I guess everyone in and amongst that world, A Tribe Called Quest, et cetera. So I was so affected by the relationship of jazz and rap and the poetry of it and the focus on what you were saying and how you had to be saying something.

Which is why I always felt so strange coming here to play music, because, to me, it’s kind of like I can’t reinvent the wheel. I take a lot of my inspiration from this place, yes, from other places too, but I was always scared to come and go, “Hey, you see that thing that you guys do? I kind of do it, too.”

You feel like even though you’ve kind of proved yourself, you’ve worked hard, you’re still stepping into an arena where now you’re the little fish in the big pond?

I think I finally feel brave enough to do that, but I think the pressure I put on myself is very different. I’m happy being out here and being more small and grassroots as opposed to what it’s like in the UK or Europe, where we play quite big shows. I think for me, it’s quite nice to have a space where it’s so much more laid-back and small as opposed to something that feels so high-pressure and big. I think the music reflects that. It’s nice at the moment because the people in the UK who are blowing up are like Dave, Central Cee, et cetera, et cetera. So it’s nice to come in and people are like, “Oh, hey, you know Central Cee?” And I’m like, “Yeah, but we don’t make the same kind of stuff.”

I find that fascinating because everything I know about the UK scene is peripheral, is third party, is at a distance, like blogs, and magazines, and movies, and things like that. So I know you guys had the rave scene. And it always felt more communal for you guys to me, so now you’re telling me it feels the same way, there’s that mutual feeling of like, “Oh, they have it figured out over there,” and we both feel the same way.

For sure. I think that’s what’s so cool. I think the things that have always seemed to do the best from the UK coming over to America, too, are things that are individual and truthful to where we live and what’s going on for us, and not trying to fit into the box of what’s going on over here.

When you think about the culture of rap music, in particular, hip-hop as a thing, like basketball, baggy pants, rap music, movies, all of this stuff is so heavily influenced by the culture of growing up and looking to America in the ’90s for me. And I think that’s still true now, but what’s cool is for the first time, guys in the UK are kind of equally part of that, which is so exciting. That’s why it’s so exciting thinking about someone like Central Cee or whatever, just being over here and being able to say, “Yeah, I’m from this part, I live in this part of London. This is what I see every day. This is our slang, this is how we speak.” Very exciting.

I always ask this question during interviews. I know you do a lot of interviews, and you have to answer a lot of similar questions. I have to ask a lot of the same questions. Have you ever thought of a question that you wish somebody would ask you that they’ve never asked you?

When you look at an artist that you love, I always want to know — like I love Kendrick Lamar, for example — and I always want to know what kind of art he’s digesting to make the stuff that he’s making. What movies is he watching or what books is he reading?

When I was making Hugo, I read a book. My girlfriend got me a book called, My Name Is Why, which is by a guy called Lemn Sissay. He’s a poet from the UK. But he grew up in the care system. And the care system anywhere in the world is fucked up, but in the UK, particularly difficult, especially for ethnic minorities and especially young Black boys, Black women. So yeah, it was a book about him growing up without any parents and trying to find a way of being a parent to himself, which I kind of resonated with. So I thought that was beautiful.

I watched Le Hain, which I’d watched many times. I watched a film called Manchester By The Sea, which I was really moved by. Yeah, a lot of drama, a lot of sad shit it sounds like.

Sometimes you have to watch some sad stuff to get to the meaning of life. The meaning of life is finding the joy. I think that’s something I get from your music. What do you want people to take away from Hugo?

I think it really is just that the main idea is that people are capable of change and forgiveness.

I think about rap music a lot, and the overarching theme of it always, especially from young men, is “I grew up without a father. It was fucking hard. Now I’ve made it and fuck my dad.” That’s the trajectory. People start off kind of jaded by the lack of infrastructure and kind of male presence they’ve had in their life, and you kind of culminate to a place of like, “Okay, now I’m that person with the power and the relationship, and I choose to put all the focus on my mom.” And that was me saying that’s kind of what I’m raised by.

I felt like never had I listened to a rap album that comes from my community that was like, “Hey, what happens if we actually try and understand where the deadbeat dad is coming from?” Not making excuses, but begin to kind of understand, okay, what was happening 20, 30 years ago that led to this? What’s the generational cycle? How do we break the cycle further instead of just kind of perpetuate it? And I guess, yeah, the thing that really I was struck by with this album is trying to say that people are capable of change. Forgiveness not only helps them, but helps yourself.

You told a story about how you named your album after your dad’s car, and I’d love for our readers to see it.

The story of the car was my dad, when he found out I was going to be a father, he was like, “You need to learn to drive because you need to pick up your kid from nursery and the hospital and all this shit.” And I was like, “I do need to learn to drive.” It’s very different in the UK because, especially in London, there’s so much transport that you don’t need to drive. But when you have kids, you kind of do need to. So he pulled up to my house and his red VW Polo, and we started to talk in these driving lessons. And the car’s a really good conduit, a great space for conversation because we’re both looking forward. So it’s not intimidating to when you’re talking to someone, you’re looking at them, it’s very intense, but when you’re both looking forward, you can be a bit more open.

I’m saying shit to my dad that no son should ever have to say to his father. My father’s saying stuff to me that no father should ever have to say to his son. And then I just at some point just gave up being angry and was like, “Okay, let me just start listening.” I stopped talking and started listening. I heard his side of the story, and he began to just explain what it was like for him, the pressures he felt, what he’d been shown by his father and by his father’s father and by the men around him, and in popular culture and the way that Black men are referenced in movies and all this shit. Everything is leading him down one path. And I think it takes a lot of strength and emotional support to go against what the whole world is expecting from you.

And I think sadly, he just kind of succumbed to the pressure. So yeah, I guess ultimately I forgave him, and the reason I was telling the story at the shows and stuff is for two reasons. One, I already said about learning to forgive and how you can set yourself free, and not only set someone else free. But the other one was just, yeah, my dad’s license plate was S331HGU, and everyone called my dad’s car Hugo. So I called the album Hugo because it was a space in time. It was a safe space for me, and without the car, the album wouldn’t exist.

I love when people put that kind of thought and intention behind creative endeavors. It just makes it feel like something that is more meaningful. This is something we’re going to be listening to in 20 years still.

I’m kind of getting to the point in my career where I’m kind of accepting of the fact that maybe the day it comes out, it’s not going to get a million views, but I’d love that maybe if one person listened to it every day for the next million days, it would get like a million plays that way, and I’d much prefer that. It’s like cave drawings. The whole point is to show people in 20 years, 30 years, 50 years where we were at. People right now, they know where they’re at. For me, it’s like a time capsule. I’m just hopeful in however many years people can look back and go, “Oh, no doubt. That’s kind of what was going on. That was the state of affairs when Loyle was growing up.”