Benjamin Coyle-Larner has been up for some time when we meet in Hackney on a day that’s unseasonably cold, even for December. He’s a dad, he shrugs, he’s used to the mornings. Most people don’t know that, though, they know him as one of south London’s biggest success stories, the rapper Loyle Carner – his stage name is a spoonerism, a reference to his dyslexia. “I feel very wise, basically,” the 28-year-old grins, crunching through the frost to the marshes, as I quiz him on juggling caring for a two-year-old while making music. “You do have less time, but you work better with it.”
Work well he has. His third album, hugo, was released in October to five-star reviews – and marks the Mercury Prize nominee’s most mature and vulnerable work to date, which is saying something, as Carner has never shied away from the personal. He prefers the voice of his mother reading a poem, as she does on the incredibly touching “Sun of Jean (ft. Mum, Dad)” from 2017’s Yesterday’s Gone, than, say, the samples you would normally expect from a hip-hop artist. But for some critics hugo represents a new side to Carner, one that is consciously trying to shake off his reputation as “UK hip-hop’s Mr Nice Guy” for something “darker”, as one publication announced.
This labelling is something familiar and frustrating, dating back to his schooldays as a dual-heritage kid. Carner grew up in South Croydon with his mother, Jean, a teacher who works with children with learning difficulties, and his stepfather, Nik, who passed away suddenly in 2014. Until recently, he didn’t have a close relationship with his biological father, who is of Guyanese descent. “My mum raised me to speak politely and be nice to people and look after kids and stuff. I’ve always been super-proud of it, to be honest,” he tells me. “You know when people go, ‘Oh, do you hate being labelled?’, it’s much better than being labelled as this asshole rap music guy or the disrespectful man. I’m the ‘nice guy’ of rap, that’s awesome. At least when I get older, I can tell my son, ‘Yo, Dad is a good dude.’”
Sure, with his languid, jazz-infused strain of rap, Carner’s “nice guy” cred is entrenched. He speaks well, dresses well and even named a song after every liberal’s favourite purveyor of seasonal recipes, Yotam Ottolenghi (“He’s the fucking best,” Carner tells me later). But: “You know there’s a stereotype that if you look like me, dress like me, live where I live, people expect you to speak and sound a certain way. And as soon as you don’t speak on the things that people expect you to speak about, even though I do, just in a different way, people are quick to go, ‘Oh, this is unfamiliar, let’s put him into something that we can quantify – he’s a nice guy, let’s just put him in this box and then he won’t be able to get out of it.’ Having an unquantifiable young Black man is scary.”
Still, things were being misunderstood – and hugo is more forceful than his previous efforts because it had to be. “I felt like I had been put into this position of nice, which is true, but I just wanted to make sure people were listening to what I was saying. I love the idea of being soft and delicate, but it was frustrating when I was playing the shows. I was looking at people and they would be smiling when I was saying some shit they shouldn’t be smiling about. Were these people really hearing what I’m saying or were they just enjoying the vibe? So I was figuring out how to make sure it was coming across as urgent – so people go like, ‘Yo, hey, we’re in a serious, like, a sticky predicament right now.’”
In the video for the album’s first track, “Hate”, the rapper is seen shouting out nurses and teachers while wrestling with himself, as hands grab at his face while he drives. It’s not so much hateful as it is filled with anger and a sense of injustice about a subject he’s spoken about for years. “But still I tell you what I hate, though/ The same fellas getting bodied by the plainclothes,” he spits. The extent of his fury at the UK justice system and its mistreatment of Black men is best heard in “Blood on My Nikes”, which recalls an incident of knife crime that Carner witnessed as a young man – something he doesn’t want to delve into. He tells me that the track was prompted by recently hearing a similar story of a young Black man who had been stabbed. “I wasn’t even surprised. And then I got really hurt by it, because I realised I was numb to it and it felt that, with my son growing up, it was the right time to reflect on it.”
Carner’s political side can be seen outside music too. In 2016 he founded Chilli Con Carner, a cooking school for kids with ADHD. Here, the artist strives to showcase the joy of neurodivergence – something he struggled with when he was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia when he was about eight. “I was taking ADHD meds so that on the weekends I could be myself again,” he recalls. “It used to break my mum’s heart. I became this robot during the week so I could get through school without being disruptive or whatever – no jokes, no smiles.” Medication didn’t work and so he was forced to accept the reality of his behaviour and embrace the creativity it generates. “Yes, it’s the root of a lot of fucking stress,” he emphasises, “but there’s so much power in it.”
The resounding thread of his latest work is rooted in fatherhood, though it pertains not only to becoming a father himself, but also the imprint that fathers leave. Not short of female figures in his life, Carner had to work to place himself in his new role. “I’m parenting my son with an understanding of motherhood – I haven’t seen parenthood with much fathering attached to it,” he tells me. “The album is intentionally devoid of a lot of talk of mothers. The point was for the whole thing to feel warm and maternal but through the lens of a father and what that means.” One of the most striking moments comes in “A Lasting Place”, in which his girlfriend reads an excerpt from Kate Baer’s poetry collection What Kind of Woman: “What kind of man weeps at the feet of his wife in pain/ Holds up the pink and shrieking thing and feels the throb of time/ […] What kind of man becomes a father/ A lasting place.” It’s a powerful picture of a man frankly reflecting on his blind spots, inherited or otherwise, in the face of taking on one of life’s biggest challenges.
Today, he’s the picture of glowing fatherhood – revelling in being a stay-at-home dad. “My girlfriend, she’s a breadwinner and I’m just a poet, a starving artist,” he chuckles, but it’s clear this took time. “It’s awesome and it should be seen as joyous. I do everything that my stepfather could never do – he was shackled by what was expected of a man. He was fucking amazing, but he didn’t look like me and I wasn’t his son, so it was a conflict, right? [My stepfather and biological father] both had terrible relationships with their fathers, and so they didn’t have the tools to talk to me about how I felt and how to give me a fucking hug. No one gave my [biological] father one, he grew up in a kids’ home and he was a Black guy – he wouldn’t get a hug for six weeks on end, so how’s he gonna hug me?”
All this work kicked off at the start of the pandemic in 2020, when Carner figured he should learn how to drive. His birth father offered to teach him and it had an added benefit: Carner wanted to cultivate a relationship with him partly so his son could learn about his Black ancestry growing up – something that he missed out on. “Driving is pretty much the first time you’re supposed to let your kid go do their own thing and so it was quite symbolic really that it was way too late. He finally taught me to do something that gave me more freedom. It was very ceremonial.” Carner filled in his own gaps during this time too: “He taught me, piece by piece, this whole other side of my life, so it was a really slow process. That’s why the album took so long, even though it wasn’t made with this in mind. My music always reflects where I’m at, so it’s just how it had to be.” The record, fittingly, was named after his father’s car, Hugo.
Carner passed his driving test, but it was just the beginning of a new relationship. “Towards the end of the lessons, we were just driving around. The tricky thing is that when I passed, it was like, ‘Oh shit, now we have to hang out properly as father and son – we don’t have an excuse.’ We’d been together for six months and I’d never looked him in the eye. I saw all of these reflections of myself in his behaviour and mannerisms, and that was a whole extra lot of stress and learning. But the point is that this isn’t finished, it’s just in a much better place than it was and that’s all you can ask for. I don’t know how it ends ’cause it’s not ended for me yet. I think that’s forgiveness – it doesn’t all just go away, but it’s cool.”
He has since been visiting his father’s native Guyana, which has been healing in more ways than one. Growing up in a white household and attending Whitgift, a private school for boys, before the Brit School and Drama Centre London, Carner was only given access to one side of himself. “I just had no fucking idea where I was going or where I was coming from,” he says, and so visiting Guyana with the Afro-Guyanese playwright and poet John Agard, who performs his seminal poem “Half-Caste” on the track “Georgetown”, was significant, but the trips also served to reinforce his sense of belonging in the country he was born. “I was mostly shown that I am British. This is my norm and where my culture is. I think that as much as there’s a big lack of acceptance by a large demographic of the country, there’s also a lot of acceptance too.”
Being a stay-at-home dad and going sober, which he did with his girlfriend when she became pregnant, perhaps isn’t what you’d envision of a young musician at the top of his game – but Carner has continually circumvented expectation, and he’s proud of where it has landed him. Contentedness, it appears, can only be found through looking back at the past and into the future. “I’m finally getting to a place where, after a lot of work and understanding, I’m beginning to grow into myself and understand who I want to be, what I want to do, and having a child gave me the space to feel some joy, really,” he reflects as we finish our trudge down the canal. “It’s crazy that you end up being all the things you needed. I’m like a father to my own inner child because I’ve been doing it for my son. Everything I do for him, I’m doing for myself, which sounds very deep and heavy, but it’s so straightforward. I feel very comfortable with who I am, how I look and where I sit.”