February 15th – The Exchange

As I stood by the bar at the Exchange, hastily trying to order the cheapest alcoholic drink in a vain attempt to warm myself from the bitter cold outside, one of my friends turned to me guiltily and said, “I almost sold my ticket tonight, people have been buying them for forty, even fifty quid I’ve heard!”

As I looked around the heaving bar, and watched people collectively pile in from the toilets and smoking area to somehow slot into non-existent gaps in the crowd, everything suddenly felt quite surreal. Fifty quid for a sold-out gig at the Exchange? But in reality, I shouldn’t have been surprised; Loyle Carner has been taking the UK hip-hop scene by storm.

After a beautifully summery set from support Babeheaven, the atmosphere in the room somehow managed to both relaxed and anticipatory at the same time. So much so that when Carner finally came on stage, rapping along to ‘BFG’, the crowd cheered in exultation before rapping and bobbing lazily along to the slick 90s style boombap production of Rebel Clef. One of the shows’ highlights was this very combination of Rebel Clef’s sleek beats with Carner’s effortless yet skilful flow, as the two seemed to bounce off each other with absolute clarity.

As Carner and Cleff finished rapping together on ‘The Money’, Carner looked over at him and told us “this guy is my best friend”. This confessional intimacy ran through the entire performance as Carner alternated between rapping, and telling us stories about the raps he was about to do. Citing a friend who hated his “samey” rapping style, Carner then burst into a jubilant rendition of ‘Ain’t Nothin Changed’ whilst simultaneously hyping up the audience so that by the time the second chorus rolled in, we were all chanting along. As the song ended, and we all cheered, Carner smiled down to himself repeated the refrain he had after every song:”‘Big ups, big ups”.

Before the gig had begun I was slightly nervous as to how the vulnerability of Carner’s lyrics would translate to a room full of people, however, the awkwardness that I had anticipated never reared its head. The honest (and often funny) anecdotes that Carner scattered between his songs seemed to dispel this potential awkwardness entirely, as he invited us to share and be involved in his life, rather in the same way that his music demands our emotional engagement.

Carner spoke about the love he had for his mum, the loss of his father, and it was a beautiful symbol of the show that one of the biggest cheers was at the announcement that Carner’s mother was about to adopt a little girl. This emotional authenticity, and unashamed truth made for a connection with the audience that almost transcended the gig itself. Carner had the audience in the palm of his hand, and when I looked around the crowd, no one returned my gaze – instead everyone stared, transfixed, at Carner. Carner has found the sweet spot in relating to the audience, as the intimacy he shared with us evoked not sympathy, but rather, our empathy.

After the show, the same heaving crowd that had lined up to buy drinks had lined up yet again, but at the merch table for a chance to talk to Carner. The dense carpet of people, all vying for a moment of intimacy with Carner – an embrace, a thank you – is a true testament to the strength, not only of his exceptional performance, but also of his singular charisma and personality.

As I looked on at the merch table, sipping the rest of the drink that I had neglected, I couldn’t help but laugh as I heard my friend say, “How the fuck was I thinking of selling my ticket?!”

Check out ‘Tierney Terrace’ right here: