The Globalist spoke to Loyle Carner at the Union in March. Interview by Lucía Keijer-Palau, words by Josiah Gogarty.
Given the relatively narrow set of questions about ‘influences’ and ‘creativity’ popular musicians tend to be asked in most press interviews, a perceived novelty in their public image can lead to the opposite extreme, with each and every topic being discussed from the same angle. Loyle Carner’s talk at the Union on the 4th March was no exception: his status as an emotional, confessional rapper led into a discussion with both the student press and Union audience that centred on emotional honesty in music, the importance of male role models unafraid to talk about their feelings publicly (he cited Rio Ferdinand as a prominent example), and the fraught relationship hip-hop culture has with mental health and masculinity.
Carner’s own approach to the issue is undeniably a positive one: he mentioned watching back footage from his 2017 Glastonbury performance and seeing young men in the audience crying, then proudly speaking about the importance in creating a space in which they felt comfortable to do so for whatever reason. When pushed about the relative uniqueness of this attitude compared to his peers, he gamely said he’d be more than happy to talk to other rappers such as Wiley about their feelings.
The kind of nostalgic, 90s-derived hip hop that Carner is however relatively minor in terms of commercial success and cultural influence. Whilst Stormzy’s candid discussion of his struggle with depression on his debut album is an example of similarly productive talk around the issue in a more impactful position, mental health in other mainstream hip-hop trends are often treated problematically. The themes of self-medication and the paranoia of urban life are nothing new to the genre, but they were usually handled fictionally, even ironically: Biggie’s ‘Suicidal Thoughts’ twists feeling like a ‘piece of shit’ to joking about rejecting heaven and its ‘goodie goodies’.
The hedonism and escapism of rap has been taken over in the mainstream by an unmistakable tone of nihilism: massive hits like Lil Uzi Vert’s ‘XO Tour Llif3’, heard ubiquitously in clubs and on the radio, feature lyrics about ‘blow[ing] my brains’ and taking ‘Xanny for the pain’. Future’s dark lyrics about self-medication delivered over party-ready trap are so common that endless memes have been made about the strange disconnect they have with their setting. Nevertheless, the perverse glamour these sentiments are used to evoke are not necessarily that different from the ‘tough guy’ or ‘tortured musician’ images that have existed for decades: the music people party to is generally not associated with real life or real feeling.
That doesn’t make it any easier for artists however – the performativity inherent in the image of any compelling musician is pushed to breaking point by the modern world: in the jaded internet era, it’s no longer enough to hear tales of gang violence or even domestic assault (c. Eminem); audiences demand rappers to be characters on and off record. The results are musicians like 6ix9ine, known for his colourful braids, a massive ‘69’ tattoo on his forehead, and recurring allegations of sexually assaulting a minor. In this climate, when Arnold Gutierrez Jr. (‘Xan Frank’) gets a tattoo of Anne Frank stretching across his cheek, he goes viral, treated as another addition to the internet’s cabinet of curiosities rather than a real person. And if you rap about lean and Xanax, then people will expect your social media to reflect that.
Lil Peep is one of the more tragic examples of this paradigm, in which the sensibilities of his music not only seeped into his life but eventually pushed him out of it. The most artistically-unique and promising out of the entire ‘emo-rap’ wave, his lyrics and social media posts were full of references to depression, self-harm and occasionally suicide. His battle with substance addiction was similarly made completely public across both mediums, creating a compelling but destructive paradox: the intensity of his music thrived off of these mental tensions, existing in an ambiguous space between catharsis and enablement. His death of an accidental fentanyl-Xanax overdose in November 2017 was all the more bitter for being relatively unsurprising.
The space he worked in was a world away from the family-quarrels and football-shirt mementos of Carner. Granted, the English MC does good, even vital work through his music in addressing the urgent need for male role models that deviate from the damaging stance predominant forms of masculinity take to mental health. But not all rappers can exist in a world of laid back boom-bap: the question remains as to what the role of the listener is when faced with a nihilistic approach to mental health issues, considering even the fact the issues are being voiced is itself substantial ground won. Perhaps some solace can be taken from the original ‘sad boy’, Yung Lean. Once considered little more than a meme, the Swede has built an idiosyncratic aesthetic and singular sound, coming through a spell in mental hospital to reach a point in which mental trouble is neither glorified or denied, but put to artistic work in imagery both surreal and surprisingly poignant: ‘My furniture has come alive / I’m dancing with a candlestick tonight … Isolation caved in / I adore you, the sound of your skin’.