Ben Coyle-Larner is wrestling with himself. Literally, in the video for his new single, Hate, a song that sees him shelve his languid, confessional flow and nice guy persona in order to deliver lines such as “I tell you what I hate though / The same fellas getting bodied by the plainclothes” with genuine venom. The video sees a camera trained on Coyle-Larner’s snarling face as he drives down a largely empty stretch of motorway, while being jostled and harangued by alternative versions of himself in the back seat. It might be a rather heavy-handed metaphor but it’s true to the tone of the song and his new direction, one he doesn’t yet seem entirely confident in.
“The song was written in such a hateful place,” says the 27-year-old rapper, better known as Loyle Carner. The video, which he co-directed, “had to reflect that feeling of getting in your own way when you’re full of rage. You’ve got all these other people, all these other voices in your head, leading you astray or trying to push you to do the wrong things. It’s that internal battle.”
Of Hate, Coyle-Larner says he “finally felt allowed to discuss race”. It’s a theme that wasn’t entirely absent from his previous releases but the coherence with which he addresses it here feels entirely new. “I hadn’t really been able to do it before – to be mixed race,” he says. “It’s a weird thing because you’re between these two absolutes … up until very recently, it wasn’t really accepted to openly discuss feeling oppressed.”
It is jarring to think that the Coyle-Larner across from me in his east London studio is the same person I saw snarling into the camera five minutes previously. For 40 minutes, he is shyly loquacious, keen to articulate his emotions but tempered by an obvious nervousness about being misconstrued: “People feel scared to say how they really feel because in the times we’re living they get crucified. I’m trying to unlearn that bit by bit and be more myself.”
Coyle-Larner has already rescheduled our conversation once, citing jetlag on his return from Guyana, the country of his heritage, where he’s been shooting his new video for Georgetown. He says he was inspired to return to Guyana at the urging of Akala, one of his rap heroes and the author of Natives. “The white side of my life is something I’ve known my whole life, it’s something I’ve been deeply connected to – I’ve been to Scotland, I grew up with my mom. It didn’t really need any more development or understanding. The thing I wasn’t able to understand was where I sit in the world as a Black man.”
He is understandably nervous – it’s his first interview since the pandemic and his last record, the well received if slightly anaemic Not Waving, But Drowning. I know his new album exists – because I’ve listened to it – but its title and release date are TBA; it represents an elephant in the room throughout, with Coyle-Larner visibly uneasy at its every mention. A couple of days before we meet he tweeted: “Hope I ain’t been gone for too long,” and seems genuinely anxious about the possibility that some fans won’t like the new him.
This shift in tone is particularly fraught because the rap he delivered on his first two albums has become a byword for a certain kind of dextrous but unchallenging hip-hop, guaranteed to win approving industry nods and inclusion on Spotify playlists but not polarising enough to be anyone’s favourite thing. Indeed, write-ups mention his involvement in a cooking school and his love of Liverpool FC as much as his music. He is UK hip-hop’s nice guy but it’s a tag he seems keen to shake. “Wherever I go, that’s what everyone always says. It’s not annoying, but it’s not always facts.”
He is frustrated by the way many have lasered in on his liberal bona fides, while acknowledging that he’s done plenty to perpetuate this two-dimensional image; one of his biggest hits is titled Ottolenghi after the chef and Guardian food writer. “There’s a whole other side to me that’s darker,” he says. “The last couple of times I’ve released music, all I’ve been worried about is what other people would think.”
Coyle-Larner grew up in south London with his mother, a teacher working with children with learning difficulties, and his stepfather, Nik, who died in 2014. As well as having ADHD, he is dyslexic, meaning school (he went to Whitgift, a private school for boys, then the Brit School for Performing Arts) was often a challenge and he is grateful to have found a career that enables him to provide for his mother and son, who was born towards the end of 2020. “I love that my plate’s full / I love the money in my bank is disgraceful,” he raps on Hate.
While buying his mum a house and a car is “like a hood dream”, it’s fair to say he’s a little guilty about the way he pays the bills. He tells the story of being at a school careers fair and a teacher wandering over to him and a couple of the other Black kids to say: “It’s a shame there’s no football or rap here.” The experience clearly lingers, and he harbours resentment that he wasn’t encouraged to direct his talent with words towards being a playwright or novelist. On his new single, he raps: “They said that it was all that you could be if you were Black / Playing ball or maybe rap.” “It’s telling that it’s what I ended up falling into – beautiful but heartbreaking,” he says. “Take nothing away, rap music is my first love and it’s saved my life countless times but I wonder how much choice I had in being a rapper?”
I ask if he’s beginning to reckon with his choices and identity more now that it’s sunk in that music is what he does for a living: “It sounds stupid but this is the first time I’ve tried hard. Where I grew up, and the people I was around, all the emphasis was on: ‘It’s not cool to try.’ And that comes from insecurity and fear, obviously, because if you try and people don’t like it, it hurts a lot more. I had to risk being considered.”
He also cites Kendrick Lamar as a huge influence in this regard, comparing the current phase of his career to where Kendrick was when he released his third studio album, To Pimp a Butterfly (Kendrick was also 27 at the time of release). Not that his forthcoming release should be judged by the standard of Lamar’s masterpiece, but the record was clearly in his thoughts when conceiving and writing his new album: “When you’re young, there’s a charm to the fact that you’re a bit naive. You don’t know what you’re striving for. It’s a balance because you don’t want to be too old to feel connected to the culture of youth that you’re trying to speak to. There’s a sweet spot in the middle, like Kendrick with To Pimp a Butterfly, where you’re naive enough to still be free-speaking, but considered enough to refine your shit.”
Coyle-Larner’s personal growth over the past three years is perhaps most evident in the development of a relationship with his estranged father. He explains his decision to reconnect with his dad in terms of “trying to be selfless for my son. I want him to understand that he is connected to his Black lineage, because I wasn’t and that affected me in my childhood.”
Indeed, he concedes the impact that not having a relationship with his father still has; on Hate he raps: “I fear him / I fear the colour of my skin / I fear the colour of my kin.” Insofar as his new music is a departure, then, it wasn’t informed by a need to address the political consequences of Black Lives Matter so much as his parallel experience of exploring the mystery of where he’s come from. “You fear what you don’t understand,” he says. “When I started making this music, I didn’t really understand the Black side of my life and that made me frustrated. I was so angry at the world.”
Hate is out now on EMI.
July 19, 2022 at 12:45PM Alex Mistlin