Not Waving, But Drowning presents a complex message from UK rapper Loyle Carner against a backdrop of soulful instrumentation, beautiful hooks, and excellent guest features.
Loyle Carner presents his music with an open heart and confessional flow, so it is only fitting that I start this review with my own admission: his debut full-length, 2017’s Yesterday’s Gone, is my most played album of the past two years. It has been an emotional anchor for me in a period of transitions, and Carner‘s personal lyrics accompany soulful instrumentals in a way that has fit almost any mood I’ve been in for upwards of 700 days. So you can imagine what kind of emotions and expectations the announcement and subsequent release of Not Waving, But Drowning, the UK rapper’s sophomore record, carried for me. The album’s title is explicit with the record’s themes and subsequent structure, but does it swim or submerge with its ambitions and expectations?
Yesterday’s Gone was an invitation into the mind of a young man in England coming to grips with the loss of his father and others in his life, finding ways to reconcile various elements of his identity and experience, and exploring the fragile beauty of family. And it was not particularly happy, even if it was hopeful.
At first listen, Not Waving, But Drowning feels decidedly more content and rejuvenated by young love. “Dear Jean” is a gentle, key-led opener that reads as a letter to Carner’s mother, introducing his new and deep love for a woman he wishes to marry. This thematically carries into the next track, “Angel”, where the simple chorus of ‘You’re my angel‘ is a memorable hook that cements his feelings for this person against a life that may have required some salvation.
This optimism culminates in the first single for the record, “Ottolenghi”, which is easily my most played song of 2019. Its simple but uplifting piano chords match a relaxed beat, underpinning Jordan Rakei‘s soulful refrains and Carner‘s nuanced storytelling. Though a structurally straightforward song, its components are stunning and resonant, leaving the listener feeling inspired and reflective.
The album takes its name from a poem by Stevie Smith, a woman whose dualistic relationship with various beliefs and lifestyles led to the following opening stanzas:
‘Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.’
The poem is clearly central to Carner‘s vision at the album, even if the opening songs third of the record present the front that all is well for the young rapper. However, as the record unfolds, the illusion of simple contentedness is disrupted. The horn-heavy swagger of “You Don’t Know” fits perfectly here – we don’t know what Carner is really aspiring to, or what he’s experiencing. “Desoleil (Brilliant Corners)” revisits his earlier referenced romance, but in a much more vulnerable and real way, with the most technical performance I’ve heard the young rapper deliver.
Perhaps the most openhearted song, “Krispy”, reads like an open letter to a distant friend and collaborator; Carner leaves 16 bars open on the track for his friend to respond. For a genre so often entrenched in machismo and rivalry, Carner opening his heart and arms to a fellow rapper is a touching subversion of so many hip hop tropes, without ever feeling contrived. The track further hints at the fact there is a great deal of loss and turmoil belying the rapper’s earlier excitement and passion. This struggle is compounded elsewhere on songs like “Looking Back”, with poignant explorations of race referencing his deceased father and forebears: ‘I’m thinking that my great grandfather could have owned my other one‘ . But it is “Loose Ends” that is the emotional center of the second half of the album. With Jorja Smith leading the chorus, the track is stunning in its own right, while showing Carner further exploring the challenges associated with constant touring, love, and family.
Loyle Carner keeps his listeners close. We get to hear him talking with his friends, ordering food, and talking to his mother multiple times throughout Not Waving, But Drowning. These soundbites of his daily life are arranged as a counterpoint to emotionally open lyrics, minimalist and soulful instrumentation, and excellent hooks. Yet, Carner seems to simultaneously tell us not to take him at face value – that even his optimism is underpinned by struggle, that he may be the one who is not waving, but drowning. It is such nuanced messaging and its beautiful delivery that make Loyle Carner‘s sophomore record a natural extension and expansion of his previous record, while further cementing his place on my list of favorite rappers.