Hugo starts with a bang. Opener ‘Hate’ announces a different Loyle Carner, driven by urgency and aggression. The South London rapper has become widely loved for his languid style of MCing, along with his low-key, jazz-infused production. ‘Hate’ jettisons these familiar tropes in favour of kinetic rhythms and lyrics that juxtapose Carner’s personal success with his myriad anxieties and fears.
This sharp opening is followed by the similarly energetic ‘Nobody Knows (Ladas Road)’. The vibrant drums and layers of gospel vocals are lavishly invigorating, as is the teeth-gritted hostility in Carner’s voice. This expansive approach signals new territory for its creator. Unfortunately, following the warm ‘Georgetown’, Hugo moves on from this exploratory mode and quickly settles back into a familiar shape. Tracks like ‘Blood On My Nikes’ and ‘A Lasting Place’ are Carner at his most sedate, occasionally so much so that their tone errs dangerously close to thin and inconsequential.
Hugo‘s lyrics are, across the board, brilliant. There’s never any doubt that Carner is a superb poet and his insights on topics from family trauma to knife crime are expertly handled. However, his voice frequently fails to match the pathos and nuance of his intellectual insight. His lack of vocal dynamism on so much of the album means that his undeniable acuity often gets lost in a sleepy, placid haze. Things pick up a little on the impassioned closer ‘HGU’, but Hugo is too often let down by Carner’s flat lack of expression.
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