By Oscar Ross, Music Editor
A horde of ghostly figures lined a rain-soaked Frogmore Street on Sunday night as streams of Loyle Carner fans sporting O2-provided ponchos waited eagerly in the downpour. Rollies and Carhartt bum-bags safe from the rain, the O2 was rammed for the arrival of one of the UK's most influential MCs.
Having featured on Loyle Carner’s recent album hugo last year, singer-rapper Wesley Joseph kicked off 2023 the right way, by dropping his own album. GLOW flaunts Joseph’s distinct, ethereal vocals with swarming synth pads and tinkling jazzy inflexions. While Joseph and his key player were the only ones on stage, that’s all they needed to bring the energy to the drip-drying early crowd.
It takes a damn lot of energy to work for a crowd as a support act for someone like Carner, let alone a crowd that has just waited up to an hour in the rain, but Joseph brought the damp, crowded pit of the O2 to life. Spitting hard and fast, Joseph has a far more intense stage presence than one would think from what I thought was his fairly laid-back discography. However, listening back after the gig, songs like ‘The Bloom’ and ‘Ghostin’ are far bigger and more anthemic tunes than I thought they were, despite having listened to them many times before.
Joseph didn’t bring the energy as an MC, using his space on stage to twirl and jump to the beat and get the crowd moving, his vocals were something out of this world. Tasteful autotune is not something I thought I’d ever write but if you don’t believe me, listen to the man’s discography. The vocals on songs like ‘MONsOON’ and especially ‘The Bloom’ are already cool enough on record, but to see Joseph seamlessly dip and dive between owning the stage with bars and flows to singing delicate, gliding vocal lines was quite literally, something to write home about.
All in all, Wesley Joseph brought serious energy as an MC, singer and altogether performer, with a highlight for me being the grimy, synthy and unbelievably catchy ‘Thrilla’, a song off ULTRAMARINE that I hadn’t given much thought to, and now cannot stop playing. I sincerely hope to catch Joseph and his incredibly vibey, sunglassed keys player again soon.
There’s a link to his tunes at the end of this article, so you’d be an idiot to read all that and not give him a listen…right?
Opening with the massive, alarm-blaring track ‘Hate’, Carner had the O2 screaming from his first bar. It is truly incredible how the rapper has such a following that his entire set was backed by a choir of his fans from start to finish. Carner’s opening tracks flowed into each other seamlessly, with ‘Plastic’ linking to Gary Lineker’s recent absence from Match of the Day as Carner jokingly made his first remark of the night:
"F**k the BBC"
- Loyle Carner @ O2 Academy bristol
Carner had the crowd in the palm of his hand, using the heavier tracks off of hugo to start, then breaking off into spotlighted, spoken word solo of half of ‘Polyfilla’. Not many performers can get away with just spouting lyrics from the middle of one of their most recent releases, but Carner can.
Following ‘Let it Go’ a slower, swaying break from the heavy opening of Carner's set, the rapper reminisced about the last time he was in Bristol. Carner’s previous appearance at the O2 he had been with his little brother, supporting none other than hip-hop legend Nas. I cannot list the things that I or most people in the O2 would have given to see that show, or even see the faces of the audience as they left.
Bars burning with emotion and delivery both massive and somehow intimate, Carner’s stage presence is as infectious as his music. At some points he was eyes tight shut, arms out wide to his fans, at others he seemed to look everyone dead in the eye, hands behind his back, leaning into the beat. Carner had no arrogance on stage, constantly dedicating songs to others, explaining how they were important narratives about his friends and loved ones. The show wasn’t about himself, it was about his music and the way it represented his relationships with others and with society as a whole. One of the best dedications was that of ‘Angel’, which Carner opened by saying:
“You think u can sing like Tom Misch?”
- Loyle Carner @ O2 Academy Bristol
The O2 crowd did a pretty amazing job of it, with Carner bouncing off his live band and the crowd throughout the night, with a clap beat from ‘Angel’ slipping into the start of ‘Damselfly’. Carner has a pretty stacked discography, but the show covered most bases, stretching across his albums, singles and top tracks.
I took a lot away from Carner’s show: thoughts about family, friendship, and even about government and society, but one part of the performance has stuck with me over the rest. This is not Carner’s comment that he has a 30-song project with world-renowned producer Madlib chilling on his laptop, nor is it Carner’s thought, and for some, tear-provoking remarks on fatherhood and family. In fact, it wasn’t even said by Carner himself.
Athian Akec features as a sample on Carner and Joeseph’s track ‘Blood On My Nikes’. The sample is Akec’s words to the House of Commons as a 16-year-old youth labour MP. In my review of hugo, I didn’t touch on ‘Blood On My Nikes’ because to be honest, I didn’t have the words for it.
The track is incredibly raw and thought-provoking, but live it was something else. I stood in a crowd of Carner’s fans, many of them young, white students, dancing and throwing their hands in the air as Carner screamed the meaning of this heart-wrenching song into his mic:
"I lost my friend, I lost my f*****g friend"
- Loyle Carner @ O2 Academy Bristol
Being a student here at Bristol, Akec then came onto the stage and recited his part of the song. Carner then explained Akec’s inspirational words and how they have changed his outlook on his place in music and society. Carner commented on how it is easy for him to stand on stage and hate the “pieces of sh*t” in government, but there is no point in him doing that when he can spend his energy supporting and uplifting inspirational young men like Akec.
Again, Carner may have been in the spotlight, but his words were about others, about movement and concepts larger than the stage or the crowd. Carner recited the words Akec said to him that affected him, and have massively affected my insight into Carner as an artist:
“You can either be relevant, or revolutionary”
Athian Akec to Loyle Carner
To me, Carner’s fans dancing and smiling through ‘Blood On My Nikes’ represent what Carner has been. An amazing, trailblazing relevant artist who created a foothold for new, conscious rap MCs. This in no way is a criticism, it’s just me showing you what Carner has been doing. What his show at the O2, and what I’m sure the hugo tour has shown many people, is that Carner isn’t going to stay in the same place. He’s not going to try and stay relevant, he’s going to try and stage a revolution. Keep your ears peeled.
Another amazing point in the night was when Carner named ‘Still’ as his favourite song he has ever written, a track I have listened to every week for nearly half a decade. ‘Still’ is a track of self-doubt, fear and intimacy issues, with Carner commenting on how scared he was to release it due to issues of toxic masculinity and being open with your emotions, to which he said:
“I’ve lost friends who could have opened up in front of me, so f**k that toxic masculine bull***t”
- Loyle Carner @ O2 Acdemy Bristol
If you’ve made it this far into reading this incredibly lengthy and probably over-enthusiastic article, you get the gist: Loyle Carner is something else. He dedicated songs to the likes of Tom Misch and Jorja Smith, recited poems to his little brother and told stories about his infant son and estranged father. He didn’t tell these stories to indulge in himself, nor to evoke pity, but to inspire others to create, connect and forgive.
The tunes spanned from ‘Nobody Knows (Lanas Road)’ nearly breaking down the walls of the O2 to the uplifting, iconic encore ‘Ottolenghi’. I will leave you with the words Carner repeated as he ended his show, a phrase that not only exemplifies why Carner is more important than ever as a poet and performer but reminds us of the power that words can, and do have:
“Take these words and go forward”
- Loyle Carner @ O2 Academy Bristol
Photography by Oscar Ross
Check out Wesley Joeseph and Loyle Carner’s tunes here:
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