For a multitude of reasons, it seems as though America will always have a prejudice against British rap. It’s not hard enough. The accents are funny. Brits just don’t “get it.” It’s ironic, then, that American rap has such an appeal across the pond (I’m writing this in a backyard in England and can hear Drake pumping next door.) If we can have theirs, why don’t they like ours?
While that’s a whole different debate — and one I will undoubtedly address at some point — the one point that Brits will forever argue is that there are numerous fantastic British rappers. And some of them have made it in the states. Skepta, Giggs, Stormzy, and Dave all have some kind of name recognition. Yet an oft overlooked artist, Loyle Carner, has little to no market in the land of Trap, Lean, and Henny. And it’s puzzling. Similar in many ways to J Cole, with hints of Chance the Rapper and even Kendrick Lamar, Loyle Carner is the best British rapper America has never heard of.
The South London native finds a balance between complex rhymes, jazzy instrumentation, and eloquent emotions to craft a sounds aligned with what Americans often refer to as “chill rap.” But to the keen listener, he’s far more than that, projecting honesty in a genre dominated by Metro Boomin’ beats and girls in Lambos.
Carner’s calling card is his confidence. Rappers seldom project both genuinity and coolness, with the two qualities becoming almost polar opposites in the industry. Yet Carner finds both in his music. The opener to his 2017 debut album “The Isle of Arran” arrives to a glorious gospel choir backed with a strong piano riff and clanging cymbals. Carner goes in with typical rap bravado, confidently delivering bars on his “come up” despite childhood difficulties with ADHD. Yet he doesn’t glamorize things, showing some self awareness in his last verse “Little bit of life after death/Scatter my ashes when it’s my time for rest/ With the lines I’m obsessed/Rhymes I possess.”
Yesterday’s Gone continually falls back on similar feelings of vulnerability. On “Florence” he imagines cooking pancakes for the sister he never had. “Damselfly” addresses his frustration with dating and details his problems with emotional connection “It’s been a minute since I’ve been with some women/Not ’cause they been lacking, just I’ve been lacking the feeling.” And the jazzy tune “Ain’t Nothin Changed” shows longing for his carefree arts school years “Uh, check, I kind of miss my student loan/I miss sitting in the student home.”
While addressing emotional problems is no longer a rare concept in the world of rap, Carner’s delivery is worlds away from Drake’s sad-boy crooning on Take Care. Indeed, while Drake made hits lamenting on “Bitches in my old phone,” Carner achieved critical success spitting “And trust I feel it, I feel it, but can’t conceal it, see/This inner city responsibility’s killing me/I start to shiver when I think of all the shit I need.” Such rhymes are more aligned with the talented and cerebral thoughts of J Cole, a fine mark to achieve.
And, crucially, Carner’s confidence reverberates throughout the whole cycle. That can be mostly credited to the quality and ambition of his production. Just as Migos rely on heavy baselines, Carner lives off complex band arrangements, jazzy drums, and brass samples. Thus, he can be more comparable to the jazzy gospel sound achieved by Chance’s Coloring Book. Such creative and complex sounds support Carner’s stream-of-consciousness style flow. And, similar to Chance, Carner radiates “cool.” It’s difficult to make vulnerable sound sexy, but Carner pulls it off with aplomb.
To further supplement his swagger, Carner has developed enough of a brand to achieve popular appeal. He wears retro football shirts — soccer jerseys, if you prefer — for every gig, and builds strong relationships with fans. He’s an outspoken TV nerd and Game of Thrones fan, posting a picture with Masisie Williams — Arya Stark, if you prefer — on instagram a few months ago. And, in a heartwarming move, Carner opened a cooking school in London for kids with ADHD.
There are any number of reasons why British rappers might not make it in the United States. And, in some cases, they’re valid. But Loyle Carner brings a fresh yet captivating sound that shares many similarities with American industry giants. It’s puzzling that he hasn’t made it in America. However, should he continue to build a brand in his native England, he could — and should — break into the rap game across the pond.
Songs you need to hear: Florence, You Don’t Know, Isle of Arran