Loyle Carner’s distinctive brand of rap exists far outside the realm of grime that fuels most of his British contemporaries or the pop-minded inclinations that saturate most US radio waves. Rather, Carner seems less concerned with ongoing trends and more intrigued in exploring themes of the human experience and fragile masculinity through the musical traditions that inspired most contemporary hip-hop, in particular jazz and ‘90s hip-hop. It is a unique penchant that allows for Carner’s sophomore effort to bridge the gap of nostalgia-inducing hip-hop and pertinent modern sensibilities.
Not Waving, But Drowning follows Carner’s critically-acclaimed, Mercury Prize–nominated 2017 debut Yesterday’s Gone, and the sophomore outing sees the British MC expounding upon his fascination with exploring profoundly human themes through a mesh of musical and non-musical elements. For Not Waving, But Drowning is not just an exceptional ‘90s-evoking hip-hop album, it is a candid sonic diary entry, surrounding the idea of what it means to grow up as a man and human being. Carner explores these ideas with the help of fellow UK heavyweights, Tom Misch, Sampha, and Jorja Smith to name a few, but it is his Mother, Jean, who arguably leaves the largest impact.
Opening on “Dear Jean,” Carner pens a quickly delivered yet heartfelt goodbye to his Mother, as he prepares to move in with his girlfriend. Poignant moments like these come in spades in Not Waving, But Drowning’s 15-track run, and the ever-present connecting thread for all these moments is Carner’s role as narrator and astute observant of the world around him. Scattered amongst Carner’s laidback flow is a series of voice memos, ranging from the seemingly mundane to prophetic, yet all of which paint Not Waving, But Drowning as a distinctively Loyle Carner project.
From the self-recorded voice memos that very much feel like they could have been captured in the spur of the moment, the penchant for jazz and old school hip-hop, and his desire to be wholly candid about his experiences with love and fear, it would be difficult to imagine anyone else but Carner at the helm of this impressive sophomore outing. And that is why the final track, “Dear Ben,” feels like such a fitting way to close out this salient display of Carner’s emotional and hip-hop intelligence.
“Dear Ben” does not feature rapping from Carner at all, rather it opts to put his Mother at the forefront, as she delivers a poetic response to the album’s opening track, reflecting on the growth of her son as he steps into his own. In doing so, we come full circle to see the world not just through Carner’s eyes but the woman who shaped this hip-hop visionary.
Listen to Not Waving, But Drowning below: