Loyle Carner - The underdog who should win the Mercury Prize

It makes me laugh that I only came across Loyle Carner because of a PR email sent to SpiceUK. A little over 18 months ago, his manager was asking us to come and see him in concert. Now we’d do anything for an interview.

Yesterday’s Gone is definitely my album of the year up to now, but my choices don’t often correlate with the Mercury Prize judging panel. Sometimes criticised for being a bit ‘snobby’ with their choices, they are on the search for “artistic achievement'”, celebrating a range of different genres that provide “a snapshot of the year in music”. Their top 12 albums will always be criticised by someone, and there will inevitably be arguments about the winner. But one thing remains, it’s kind of a big deal.

So why is Loyle a deserved winner?


Pushing boundaries in a genre

Name a British hip-hop star who is respected in the mainstream, as well as within the genre. Now don’t bite my head off, I’m not talking about Grime, we all know Grime is massive, I mean proper hip-hop. Old-school, stylistic, clever lyrics over a funky beat with a few DJ scratches. There has never been an equivalent in this country to the likes of Dr Dre, Tupac and Drake. The way they rhyme has more bounce than UK rappers, Grime is more confrontational, and whether fanatics of the genre like it, this isn’t for everyone.

In my opinion, Loyle is the first of his kind. No one has been able to replicate this style, adored by millions, within the UK’s borders. Moreover, creating such content without relying on the usual rapper go to’s is mind-boggling. There’s a reason hip-hop has a bad name. Even though it speaks the truth about a lot of people’s lives, you can’t get away with talking about drugs, bitches and guns all day long on the radio.

A first person confession about his upbringing in South London, Yesterday’s Gone doesn’t need to rely on the usual click-bait inspirations, no gun fingers or young money will be found here. Carner is part of a new age in this genre,  following the likes of Chance the Rapper and King Kendrick, who are using their music to show you don’t have to be a bad guy to make a rhyme. When you hold artistic influence, it is important to use it wisely.

On Stage Presence

I know this award is about the artistic brilliance of an album but, for me, to discount how it is performed, is naive. Would Skepta really have won last year if all the albums had been listened to independently, discounting who they were and how they are on stage? Knowing how a performer transforms their work is essential to understanding their true talent. For Loyle, this is what he excels at.

He skips through his lyrics with an infectious charm, an ultimate confidence, which reminds me of Kendrick Lamar in a lot of ways. He has no on stage ego, no fake gangster signs, no lies, just him. Balancing cheeky cockiness with respectful modesty, he even brought his mum on stage at Glastonbury, before making the crowd bounce to a song about her. Girls love him, boys want to be him, and the critics can’t shut up about him.

For me, his relationship with DJ and right-hand man, Rebel Kleff, is a big part of his on stage persona. They must practice their songs to within an inch of their life, telling stories about failed fathers and teenage struggles. This connection with the music is hard to find, bubbling through any venue he decides to play. It is this energy that makes me know he could fill any room with his style, from the smallest of venues to the most of impressive of stadiums – his narrative holds no boundaries.

Community Factor

I’ve touched upon how Yesterday’s Gone is not your usual rap album. His understated tone relies upon his childhood memories, and I think it is important to understand how a person’s life controls their music.

Benjamin Gerard Coyle-Larner grew up in Croyden, with his Mother and Step-Father. (He says he has little contact with his biological father). He has ADHD and dyslexia, has been involved in music and drama from a very early age and now helps run several community projects to help children in similar circumstances. The most famous of these are the cookery classes he helps run with The Goma Collective, taking full advantage of his other passion, cooking, and helping children who have similar “problems” that he had.

“She could be my freckle-face fidgeter, me but miniature, sleeping on the sofa ’til she tackles and I tickle her” – Florence is Loyle’s story pretending he has a little sister, so his Mum has another girl to spend time with

Of course, you might be sitting there saying there are plenty of nice people about but that’s got nothing to do with their music. But what I plead with you to understand is how effortlessly eloquently Carner puts this across in his music. ‘NO CD‘ follows the story of an excited child building their music collection, ‘Isle of Arran‘ creates sounds that seductively describes a grieving family and ‘Aint Nothing Changed‘ faces up to the rejection Carner faced when trying to reach the top. This album is a journey through the life and times of a boy wanting to make a name for himself, and the thing that will project him from yesterday into the future.

Simply put, Loyle Carner stands out for all the right reasons. Charismatic yet modest, talented with a personality, honest but doesn’t feel the need to depress you whilst on stage. He is an artist as well as a musician, in everything he does, ticking a lot of the Mercury prize boxes. And when all this is said and done, he probably has no chance of winning because he is too niche, even for this prize. A real underdog amongst a vast array of talent, would they really give it to an MC two years in a row? Well, if that is their choice, there is no stopping where he might end up next.