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WPGM Recommends: Loyle Carner – Not Waving, But Drowning (Album Review)

Benjamin Gerard Coyle-Larner, better known by the stage name Loyle Carner, is a young British hip hop musician and actor. His new album Not Waving, But Drowning is an album quite unique in the rap music genre, with relaxing melodies and soft lyrics which are personal and very vulnerable by sharing his life stories in the form of songs.

He was born in South London and raised in South Croydon, with his mother, Jean, his stepfather and younger brother. He never gained a close relationship with his father due to lack of contact. His father is of Guyanese descent, and he says his mixed race heritage has influenced his music and personal experiences in negative and positive ways.

Ben also struggles with ADHD and Dyslexia and his stage name is a spoonerism of his dyslexia, subtly reflecting the influence it has on his life and the daily challenges it can bring. All of the things that have affected him in his life have tremendously influenced his music.

Ben began to study at the BRIT school for an acting degree in 2014, but unfortunately decided to drop out after his stepfather died unexpectedly of epilepsy and chose to focus on his music whilst looking after his mother.

In September 2014, he released his first EP titled A Little Late, this led to many great experiences for him to help pursue his music career; including playing at Glastonbury Festival in 2015 and playing on BBC Radio 1 in their Piano Sessions. A few years on he released his debut album Yesterday’s Gone, which was released on January 20, 2017 and went on to be nominated for a BRIT Award in 2018 for British Breakthrough Act and British Male Solo Artist.

The title of his new album comes from Stevie Smith’s 1957 poem Not Waving But Drowning, about a man who dies because bystanders are sure that he’s just splashing around, having a great time in the water, when in reality it was his call for help, dismissed by others which led to his death.

When Coyle-Larner read this poem again recently, he found a personal connection with the poem and how it parallels what it is like to live in modern society.

I see myself in it”, he says. “Because I’ve had some small success, moderate, tiny success on the grand scale of success, but enough that people think I’m going, ‘Look at me in my new house with my beautiful girlfriend’. And, sometimes, especially when the album process was beginning, I was drowning! And everyone thought I was hanging out”. His words reflect a generational consensus of how a lot of young people feel today.

The album’s title track “Not Waving, But Drowning” is not a conventional song, it is recorded with an instrumental background with an excerpt of a recitation of her “Not Waving but Drowning” by Stevie Smith.

While the poem tackles depression, feeling alone and helplessness, the track carries a very important message of raising awareness that depression is increasing in society and is more of an issue now than it ever has been. This poem was written 62 years ago and the epidemic is still growing.

Generally, the album focuses on personal subjects that make Carner feel vulnerable; his relationship with his mum, Jean, his father leaving when he was young and his stepfather coming into his life and sadly dying at age 40. The album is a collection of his stories and the songs flow perfectly to reflect an emotional experience of his life’s journey. The lyrics are accompanied by soothing melodies that add to the ambiance created through his album.

The album opens with a song that he has written for his mother “Dear Jean“. The song is heartfelt and raw, presenting honesty and genuine love for the woman who has raised him, and for every past experience that seemed insignificant at the time, he now realises that it has made him into the person he is today.

Rapping about his understanding of how hard it can be to be a mother when your child is all grown up. He emphasises on shifting his love from his mother to another woman but stressing that nothing can come between their emotional bond. Although he may be moving on with his journey in life and he loves another woman, he and his mother are still inseparable.

His dominating presence of women featured on the album reinforces the major impact the women in his life have had on him to help shape the person Carner is today. His emotional intelligence is inferred within the album – at times it is a criticism to inequality of gender and the stereotypes of how one should behave due to their gender.

Within a recent interview he commented that “I was raised by women, by my mother and my grandmother, and they would talk about how they felt every day. And because I was with them I’d go, ‘I’ll talk about how I feel!’ It was great, it was liberating, it helped me a lot. But back then, women were the ones who communicated and men didn’t communicate, right? It was seen to be weak. That’s changing a bit now, incredibly, but we’re still in the early stages of the evolution of man”.

Talking about this as a successful male rapper is the first steps to helping young people. His audience and the industry he is in, impacting and raising awareness for so many young people who are naïve to the issue or who want a change but don’t have the courage to speak out about it.

Looking Back” is one of Ben’s most authentic songs on the album, it describes the reality of dealing with racism and the difficulties that have arisen with being mixed race. As he was writing, he wanted to show his struggle through his music, he said; “I was thinking a lot more about what it is to be mixed race. Being too white to be a black kid and too black for a white kid at school, it’s something I think about a lot, and it was time for me to put it down on paper”.

An issue that affected him and many others too. He feels like he is where two different worlds collide, a mixture of different cultures, feeling a little lost.

The closure of his album, “Dear Ben“, is a track that references memories, it is a poem that his mother had written and performed to the backing melody. It reminisces about a story of their lives together, it is a song of gratefulness, thanking Ben for all that he has done for the family.

The honesty of the lyrics reflects just how open and sincere the relationship between them is. The song makes references to Carner’s ADHD, with the sleepless nights and the death of his stepfather. Also, remembering stories of growing up, him supporting his family by dropping out of drama school because he realised that family was more important to him, when he was falling in love and moving on but never truly moving away because he will always be a part of the family – no matter where he goes or what he does.

She pays tribute to Carner’s girlfriend; “I’ve gained a daughter not lost a son” the acceptance of their love, changing the preconceived idea that she has to ‘give up’ Ben to his girlfriend. Jean sees it as having a daughter that may not be blood but is the only daughter she’ll ever have. She has become a part of the family.

Loyle Carner’s authentic lyrics are an example of how music should be used to influence positive relationships which are full of love and honesty. He sheds light and raises awareness for mental health issues and is a role model for young people on how to turn disabilities like ADHD and Dyslexia into psychedelic melodies that help show what a gift these disabilities can be.

Loyle Carner’s album Not Waving, But Drowning is out now on AMF records, purchase it on iTunes here, and stream it below.

Words by Abbie Hewer

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