If ever I want to feel my emotions deeply, Loyle Carner is always first on the playlist. The tenderhearted south London rapper has soundtracked more wistful train journeys and pensive evenings than I can count. So on the 16th of March, it was clear to me that I shared the same level of anticipation that had people running and clicking their heels on the ascent to the OVO Arena in Wembley.
To sell out the Wembley Arena is no small feat and it seems that Loyle Carner is acutely aware of the platform he holds, most evident in his choice of warm-up acts for his tour. First up was Birmingham native Wesley Joseph and it was easy to see why he’s tipped to be on the come-up this year. Starting out with ‘MONSOON’ followed with ‘Thrilla’, the reception from the audience was nothing short of exceptional, which makes sense given the stirring energy of Joseph’s sound aligns perfectly with Carners’ blend of redemptive melancholy. His casual cadence and unbreakable flow demonstrate the range of an artist capable of reaching great heights.
The set was peppered with material from his latest album release ‘GLOW’, which dropped back in February to high acclaim, the rendition of ‘25’ was raw and emotionally charged, contrasting brilliantly with one of my personal favourites from his discography ‘Ghostin’. Riding this wave he closed out with ‘Patience’ giving the stage along with the palpable energy he had cultivated to Olivia Dean.
I was (much to my dismay) previously unfamiliar with Olivia Dean. She captured the hearts of the audience, myself included, with her flowing innocence and soft tones. Toasting the crowd with a can of beer, she weaved between brief covers of Erykah Badu and Kelis songs, tying them to her own material. ‘Danger’ came complete with incredible vocals, sweet and bright it lifted the arena. Diving into ‘Be My Own Boyfriend’, she pushed and pulled the atmosphere of the room like it was the tide of the ocean. It’s always nice when an artist brings their own maracas and after a little bit of playing she previewed her upcoming single, I couldn’t catch the name but it seemed the perfect tune for the coming summer days.
After a quick interlude, the main event began with a crescendo. The familiar rings of ‘Hate’ draw Loyle Carner out onto the stage. No slow going this night, he came out to a high-energy welcome from a chanting crowd. ‘Plastic’ was next, with Carner calling out vapid trappings of image and celebrity. ‘Hugo’ as an album was notably different to his previous ones, infused grief, anger, and – ultimately – resolution. I now understand that it truly comes alive when it’s performed. Having seen Carner appear a few years pre-pandemic at Field Day, his material has more energy and fervour than ever before. In many ways this feels representative of his growth as a person and an artist, having become a father in the time that has passed he no doubt sees the world with renewed vision.
Carner did far more than simply run through the album track by track, fan favourites interlaced the set with ‘You Don’t Know’, ‘Ice Water’ and ‘Angel’ being taken from his hands, at several points the audience was performing back to Carner as much as he was to them. There’s something altogether otherworldly about hearing an arena that engaged with an artist. The production of the show was stripped back, with a heavy emphasis on light and atmosphere rather than theatrical projections, his presence and physical demeanour provided all the energy an overly elaborate production would have. Any more would have swamped the meaning and tenderness in his material. To agree, you need only observe how ‘Looking Back’ carried a deeply emotional wave through the room.
Dedicating ‘Homerton’ to his family and loved ones he performed it as a duet with Olivia Dean. Carner was definitely not short of striking talent to bring out, with Erick the Architect and Knucks gracing the stage at points throughout his set, each performing their respective collaborations with the South London icon. The most powerful appearance revealed itself at the hands of Athian Akec, poet and former Labour Youth MP, reciting a piece on knife crime that bolstered the revolutionary undertones running throughout ‘Hugo’.
For all of the highs in the evening, there was but one moment that sat in a difficult position against my heart and I feel it is important to say. This came during the end of ‘Georgetown’ where I found myself surrounded by a predominantly white audience gleefully screaming out ‘half-caste’ at the top of their lungs, for I fear they may have missed the meaning behind the song itself. It’s important to be mindful of your positionality regarding these kinds of phrases and experiences, even in song. The same phrase uttered out on the street an hour later by the same people would bring a very different kind of reaction. Loyle Carner’s reclamation of the term as a mixed-race artist does not absolve the impact of these words being spoken by those outside the realm of impact, even if your intention is purely to share in your joy of his artistry.
The proceedings concluded with Carner sharing a short story about being a father and breaking a cycle of neglect and pain by passing his driving test with the influence of his dad with whom he had started to repair a broken relationship. Revealing that he named the album after the name of his father’s car and dedicating the final song ‘HGU’ to him. I won’t lie, his repetitions of “I forgive you” brought tears to my eyes. Loyle Carner shone in Wembley Area, as he does on every stage.
Words: Naima Sutton