Since breaking through with 2017’s soul-searching debut Yesterday’s Gone, Loyle Carner’s confessional raps have helped him craft his own lane in UK rap. Carner is a lot more sensitive than his peers and isn’t afraid to get lost in his feelings, with the jazz-enthused boom bap production allowing his soft voice and laid back delivery to take center stage, using introspection to explore the fragility of modern masculinity.
These themes continue on Not Waving, But Drowning, a title based on Steve Smith’s 1957 poem about a man who dies in the water because bystanders are not sure whether he’s waving hello to them or facing difficulties. But while Carner’s debut was arresting, the revealing lyrics that power its follow-up feel sickly, with the rapper indulgently sharing emotional details about his personal life in a way that verges on being corny.
Take “Desoleil (Brilliant Corners),” a duet with Sampha where Carner’s simplistic bars – “Caught with the grieving/ was taught to misleading/ when all I been caught in the seasons/ I stare ‘cause your froze in the cold night air/ as the show lights glare” – suggest a poet who is unable to say anything with real depth. Throughout this record, Carner makes ham-fisted metaphors about either sailing away mentally, his personality changing like the seasons, or feeling like he’s swimming in emotion, each one making you roll your eyes more aggressively.
Things stray into particularly cheesy territory with “Loose Ends,” a collaboration with a mushy Jorja Smith, which sounds like the cousin to Eminem’s similarly turgid Beyoncé duet “Walk On Water”; both built around banal piano-led compositions and empty emotive lyrics. Carner attempts to discuss personal tragedies such as the death of his step dad and the challenges of being mixed race (“’Cause it was black and white/ literally black and white/ White from my mother and my father was the blackest skies”), but doesn’t do much beyond reminding us that these experiences were painful. Great artists are able to use storytelling to reveal how they’ve processed pain, and subsequently tap into the human condition in a way that inspires empathy, but Carner fails to scratch beyond the surface, only really providing us with a scattershot of emotion.
His vocal delivery (which is sort of like a soft-spoken bloke down the pub calmly telling you his life story over pints on a summer’s day while actually making you want to run for the hills) also lacks spark. At a time where UK rappers with booming and even eccentric voices such as slowthai, Giggs, and Little Simz are experimenting with their vocals, Carner, by comparison, sounds like he’s been sapped of all his energy.
On “Krispy” his delivery is dull, which means the track’s thoughtful lyrics lose a lot of their poignancy and edge. It’s alright spending an entire album speaking directly from the heart, but if a listener can’t feel any bass in your voice than your message will fail to grab them. Sure, artists like Earl Sweatshirt and MF Doom also have monotone vocals, but their flows are intricate and probing, which makes their unorthodoxies exhilarating; the same can’t be said for Loyle Carner.
At times the production here is really good, sitting somewhere between the soulful backpack rap vibes of Common’s Be and Blu & Exile’s Below the Heavens, with sun-drenched drums and the kind of warming synths you might find on an old Ron Ayers record. Tracks like “Still,” “You Don’t Know,” and album highlight “Looking Back” bottle the breezy vibes of a summer’s day in a London park, but it’s just a shame the rapper weaving through them sounds so pedestrian.
There’s a feeling that this record also has a kind of sign-posted wokeness, with Carner putting tracks on here that are very obviously designed to inspire a particular emotional response. The spoken word poem by Carner’s mother Jean, “Dear Ben,” which closes the album, has her talking about gaining a daughter now that her son has settled down with his girlfriend and how he “filled big boots” in a household that tragically lacked father figures. It’s like the label wanted a “It’s time to cry now” moment; it feels like over-sharing and the sort of monologue that should never have left a family dinner table.
Carner is a technically sound rapper and none of the music on here is terrible, but it just feels very safe at a time where so many of his UK peers are taking much grander sonic risks. Surely there is a particular crowd who will fight to say Not Waving, But Drowning is deep and a bold diary entry that touched them right in the heart, and it is perhaps the same audience who enjoyed Eminem’s Revival; another record that confused being honest with being thoughtful. It’s important that Loyle Carner is exploring the idea of toxic masculinity through his music, but it’s a shame he’s doing so in such a boring way.