Loyle Carner – ‘Not Waving, But Drowning’ review

The south Londoner's lyricism shines the brightest on his uneven but often impressive second album, which features a handful of radiant tunes

Loyle Carner‘s debut album ‘Yesterday’s Gone’ was good – in fact, it was really good. Stuffed full of the south Londoner’s poetic lyrics, crunchy production and radiant hooks, it was nominated for a swathe of awards, and got people to sit up and take notice. Two years on he’s back with ‘Not Waving, But Drowning’, a compelling follow up – but does it reach the dizzying heights of his first record? Yes and no.

It’s the collaborations that shine the brightest on ‘Not Waving, But Drowning’. Jordan Rakei collab ‘Ottolenghi’ is a dreamy slice of British hip-hop. Carner’s slick delivery bounces over driving beats and jazz-flecked riffs, with Rakei’s sun-drenched vocals provide the perfect refrain. Packed with soulful guitar licks and floating nu-jazz synths, ‘Angel’, team-up with old friend Tom Misch, is another gorgeous, summer tune. And then there’s the stunning Jorja Smith featuring ‘Loose Ends’, were Smith’s honeyed vocals elegantly interweave with Coyle’s mellifluous bars, and the results are idyllic.

Yet amongst these luminous choice picks, sometimes it gets lethargic – and the record stalls. Sampha collaboration ‘Desoleil (Brilliant Corners)’ is sluggish and sticky. Slow to get going, the leisurely vocals and chilled out production mean it sticks around well past its welcome. ‘Krispy’ is similarly dawdling, with the stripped-back instrumentation feeling bare as opposed to supporting the emotional lyrics.

But even when musically it falls short, Carner’s brilliant lyrics cut across. Most songs were written as messages to family or friends, and as a result are brilliantly honest. On ‘Krispy’ he addresses the breakdown in friendship with pal and long-time collaborator Rebel Clef: “Now two best friends who shared the torch barely talk / And when we do it’s money not remorse”. Candid and poignant, it’s the affecting story of a friendship ruined by money.

And of course, there are features from Carner’s beloved mum, predominantly in the two spoken-word recitals that bookend the album. First there’s a letter from Carner to his mum, (‘Dear Jean’), where he tells her he’s fallen in love and moving out of their family home: “Dear Jean / I hope this doesn’t come as a surprise / But I’ve fallen for a woman from the skies”, and then a response from his mum to him, which concludes: “My task is done / For I’ve gained a daughter, I’ve not lost a son”. It’s emotive, if a bit trite, and a natural evolution of Jean’s poem about her “scribble of a boy” on ‘Sun of Jean’, which that concluded ‘Yesterday’s Gone’.

With a handful of radiant tunes, and lashings of Carner’s sensitive and witty lyricism, ‘Not Waving, But Drowning’ is an impressive second album. Although at times the momentum of the record stalls, it’s another bold release from one of the biggest talents British hip-hop has to offer.

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