A few nights ago I watched a documentary about the New York projects rapper, Nas. Today I’m writing a post about London rapper Loyle Carner, and I am struck by the similarities between the two. Although not apparent on first listen, a closer listen to both their lyrics and their back stories reveals something that both hold in common, and is prety vital to rap itself.
New music – from indie to rap -tends to be performed by disaffected young people. And every one of these people has a backstory. Some are more interesting and dramatic than others, but the ones you will hear about are the ones attached to the best music. And you will hear about them. In reality, but especially from the media’s perspective, music does not exist in a void.
That’s especially clear from the perspective of rap music. Often, the backstories do not exist alongside the music but exist within it, vital to the lyrics. Nas’ ‘Plus congratulations, you know you got a son/ I heard he looks like ya, why don’t your lady write ya?’ is adressed not to some hypothetical character but to any one of the numerous men from his Queen’s Bridge neighbourhood who wound up in prison. Grime stalwart Bugzy Malone’s lyrics include the lines ‘So I jump in the S-Line driving fast/ Hope I don’t bump in to my step-dad/ Cos they say mental abuse is worse than physical abuse and I wanna get him back’, with the contrast between the brag of the first line and the crude intimacy of the second and third making the latter two all the more impactful. And Loyle Carner’s eytomous dad – ‘Everyone says I’m fucking sad/ Course I’m fucking sad/I miss my fucking dad’ – died in Febuary, less than a month before the recording of the song containing those lyrics.
Rap, in other words, is often emotionally intense, and extraordinarily intimate.
It it no coincidence that these backstories tend to be painful, and that they tend to be included in songs. Neither is it a coincidence that these men live in an environment where men are often stunted in terms of their ability to express their emotions in conversation, and that their back stroies tend to be included in songs. You can see the proof of the stories as laid out explicity in the lyrics, and evidence for that paticular emotional environment is everywhere.
This, then, is what connects Nas and Loyle Carner. It is their use of rap not simply as a moethod of ‘self expression’, but as a kind of therapy, an emotional biography. It is something in common to so much of rap. It is why even though Loyle Carner claims (and appears) to be directly inspired by the more hard hitting, DnB/Garage orientated UK Grime rather than the sometimes slower, more relaxed soul and jazz based US Hip-Hop, you can still draw a musical line straight from the projects of New York to Loyle Carner’s South London estate. Both are inspired by a common thing – themselves, and their stories.
It is clear that for most rappers, rap is not an art, or a way of making money. It’s a necessity, a necessary outlet for self expression where there are no others.
It may be a necessary outlet for others, too, because amongst genres arguably only rap has embraced intimacy so closely. In the words of Loyle Carner: ‘What moves me the most is people coming up to me going ‘I lost my dad’ or ‘my mum’s got cancer’, and they come and say ‘thank you, your music helped me’’.