Loyle Karner — Review of “Hugo”: an Honest, Unassuming Storyteller


Fatherhood is pushing the London rapper to reconsider his story and offer a “truthful representation of the facts” on his third album.

At the top of a Guyanese coastal cliff, looking into the camera with legendary poet John Agard, the final frame of Loyle Karner’s new video “Georgetown” captures the rapper’s inspiring journey from south London. Produced by the royal family of hip-hop Madlib, named after the birthplace of Karner’s paternal grandmother, and based on samples of Agard’s original poem Half Caste, the single features a wide scope from the subtle personal narrative of early hits such as “Cantona”. The message is clear. On his third album, Loyle Karner reveals himself to the world.

Known for the soft, jazzy beats of British hip hop and clever introspective rhymes about family, friendship and grief, Karner is an honest, low-key storyteller. After the debut of “Yesterday’s Gone” in 2017, collaborations with artists such as George Smith and Tom Mish brought him into the mainstream, before the subsequent album “Not Waving, But Drowning” in 2019 secured him the status of one of the brightest talents of British hip-hop.

Imbued with melancholic reflections, “Hugo” was written in isolation, when global protests against structural racism strongly influenced Karner. The result? An album that explores themes of race, identity and belonging with new depth. “Ladas Road (Nobody Knows)” reflects on a mixed-race man facing racism against blacks without the full embrace of the black community. He’s rapping “I told a black man, he didn’t understand / I reached out to white, he didn’t take my hand,” his tone reinforces the purposeful energy of the album’s opening cry: “Let me tell you what I hate!”

Newly minted father Karner recently called his music a “true representation of facts” that his son can look back on, documenting his status as a young, black, rich artist going through a difficult past. “Blood on My Nikes” embodies this. A haunting shot of a murder witnessed by Karner at the age of “barely sixteen”, featuring sinister horns and a sharp speech by teenage activist Atian Akek about knife crimes. Enriched with powerful bars like “This is how I grew up, afraid of the night bus/ Afraid of boys like us”, the track trembles with infectious darkness.

In terms of sound, this is his most perfect record. London-based producer kwes creates a heartfelt, melancholic sound that helps Karner move from dynamic multi-syllabic narration to a more honest, thoughtful voice. It’s personal, but far-reaching; the rapper mourns his father, but he also mourns strangers, children lost to violence, crime, a hostile state. He is saddened, fully aware of the injustice of the world, but more calmly feels his place in it. In “Homerton,” lyricist Croydon emphasizes this vision by rapping: “I’m starting to think about the legacy I’m leaving.” One thing is for sure — after Hugo, this legacy has become richer.


Release date: October 21, 2022
Record Label: EMI, Warp Music


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