06 April, 2015

Album Review... Young Fathers - White Men Are Black Men Too

Operating as a unit for over 13 years, Edinburgh trio Kayus Bankole, Graham Hasting, Alloysious Massaquoi comprise Young Fathers. Between them they’ve got a broad spectrum of cultural heritage which they channel through a collision of DIY rock’n’roll and leftfield hip-hop. Their puritanical approach to the industry has led to a press relationship akin to that of a bull being circled by a matador, exacerbated by their cool reaction to winning the 2014 Mercury Prize for debut album ‘Dead’; an album dynamic and exciting as it was felt like more of a creative playground than a cohesive record.  As a follow-up White Men Are Black Too is a vast listening experience, weighing in at 12 tracks that are challenging and seemingly abstract for the first few listens. It takes a while to acclimatise to the arching tones and elliptical structures, but there’s a wealth of deft writing and beautiful modern soul and gospel on this record.  

Despite some recent class comments, the overriding theme is humanism. Obviously race is the main discussion point, but it feels like something Young Fathers are actively trying to deconstruct; Feasting’s maniacal cry of “I can buy you a new language, ” and the ‘John Doe’ character suggests an erosion of preassigned identity; joy in anonymity. The best songs tackling the matter of race focus are the double-tap of ‘Old Rock N Roll’ and ‘Sirens’ – fury and sorrow back-to-back. The former is an incendiary exploration, bristling with statements such as “I’m tired of playing the good black…/…I’m tired of blaming the white man,” played out over a ramshackle beat skinned with sitar twangs. ‘Sirens’ is gentler but sobering, focusing on the racially motivated police violence that’s been pervasive in the media recently. The beats are warped gunshots and heartbeats; death knells for a generation of young black men. Hastings, who usually exudes passive-aggression in his delivery, has this tired clarity in his voice trying to envisage an end to the institutional racism “Police are on cocaine/And they want to know my name/Said they’ll love me all the same.” Kayus wearily acknowledges that he could be a target and there’d be no justice, and it’s crushing.  

WMABMT certainly finds power in darker source material, but can quickly flip into raucous warmth, exercising what Young Fathers call their “interpretation of what a pop album should be”. ‘Nest’ has these huge handclaps and clanging piano strokes and direction on Shame comes from dense electric fuzz and bursts of soul from the Leith Congressional Choir. Lead single ‘Rain Or Shine’ is their best work yet and the closest thing to an anthem WMABMT has, propelled by a rattling organ sample and a dense bass line where tangential effects blossom and mutate before fizzling out. It’s a sound without borders, but this freeform nature could have easily backfired – it’s firmly not a conceptual album, but this isn’t easy listening. From the go its audio chaos - anyone who can enjoy the fidgety structure of a Passion Pit album will be on more familiar ground here as it lurches between blizzards of electric blips and gospel cries. 

Yeah there are heavy amounts of pain and anger, but as Everything Everything’s Jonathan Higgs put it, “I think you'd have to be blind and deaf to have lived through 2014 and not shed a tear.” With their sophomore albums Kendrick Lamar and Run the Jewels tried to open a dialogue - instead this is a stream of consciousness; raw emotion and aspiration crystallised in a time of social and political upheaval. ‘Dead’ was pretty badly lacking the frenetic energy that Young Fathers bring to their live show;  so it’s satisfying to see them injecting that ‘let’s get fucking mad in front of a microphone’ ethos into WMABMT. Everything is bigger here and more concise, bound together by brotherhood and has the potential to be not only a postmodernist great, but one that redefines the boundaries of pop. 

Rating: 9/10

Words - Ethan Weatherby