Not Waving, But Drowning is not a hip hop album. Cast that notion out of your mind immediately, because that is not the beast we are dealing with here. At its best, Loyle Carner's sophomore album is spoken word set to music – but its best consists of just two tracks ('Sail Away' and 'Dear Ben'), leaving an overall impression of what could have been across thirteen other songs that fail to move the needle.
We open and close the album with two pieces, one read by Carner, addressed to his mother, and one read by his mother, addressed to Carner. The latter, 'Dear Ben' is by far the most beautiful piece of poetry on the entire album, yet Carner himself is nowhere to be heard – and therein lies the problem at the core of Not Waving, But Drowning. Despite the earnestness of his lyrics, and I use the word 'earnest' very deliberately, because it certainly feels as though Carner is pulling punches in how vulnerable his lyrics could be - the majority of the album lacks bite from the man himself.
No matter who Carner enlists as collaborators in each of his songs, be it Tom Misch in 'Angel', Sampha in 'Desoleil (Brilliant Corners)' or Jorja Smith in 'Loose Ends', it is always Carner that lets the side down. Misch's soulfulness and Smith's radiance are both undermined by Carner's flat delivery, and it is his delivery alone that is the problem here. Carner is on a par with Mike Skinner – almost. Both use fairly straightforward rhyming couplets, and keep their metaphors deliberately simplistic, so in that sense, they are equals. But while Skinner's voice manages to captivate and thrive in the banal and British, Carner sounds bored.
Carner's flawed delivery is highlighted all the more when paired with his contemporary, Rebel Kleff. Both have verses in 'You Don't Know', and although they are singing from quite literally the same hymn sheet, Kleff shines here. He sounds stronger, more polished and comfortable in his own skin as a rapper – even with clanging bars like "Back when I was dumb, I was never running my gums / Just always running from webs that I spun, stress weighing a tonne / Weight was more than I was able to bear / 'Cos in my mind it's mad fruity to be labelled a pear".
None of the album's problems really makes sense, because Carner clearly aspires to a certain level of intimacy with his audience. The seventh track, for example, is a poignant peek behind the curtain, a recording of his family's reaction to that World Cup moment where 'It's Coming Home' made the never-repeated transition from irony to hope. Yet here we are: Carner aspires to a level of storytelling pioneered by Mike Skinner on 2002's Original Pirate Material, but the studio recording falls short of that by some way.
As for the instrumentation throughout the album, I hope you like piano and percussion – because that's what you're getting. It sounds like stock music, for the most part. It's easy for your mind to wander as the songs play out, and not in a good transported-to-a-different-plain kind of way. 'Krispy' reaches slightly further, and the mixing in 'You Don't Know' is actually impactful, but this is hip hop as lounge music. Undeniably chill if that's your thing, but I needed more.
The simplicity of this entire enterprise is all the more heartbreaking when we consider songs like 'Still', where Carner knowingly bastardises 'C.R.E.A.M.' Carner is leaving us in no doubt of his true hip hop origins: he's done his homework and is showing his working, but only doing enough to scrape a passing grade.
At the end of the day, Carner lacks both the lyricism of the true heavyweights of his particular niche – cringeworthily referred to by some as 'conscious rap' – and the flow of more commanding, grounded voices in UK hip hop and its parallel genres. He is not a Scroobius Pip, Kate Tempest or Akala, and he is not a Mike Skinner, Dave or Plan B. He may get there, with time, but right now – even if we take Carner's word for it that he is, in fact, drowning, not waving, his music needs more depth before I can join him in that.