Last year, Edinburgh’s Young Fathers surprised people with their Mercury Prize victory, beating out the likes of FKA Twigs, Royal Blood, Anna Calvi, and Damon Albarn. It was surprising mostly because their masterful Dead went under the radar with so many critics within the print and online media and blogosphere. However, a few places, including ourselves, acknowledged the album as one of the best of albums the year for its complexity and innovative mix of hip hop, R&B, rock, pop, and indie and songwriting that went well beyond the mundane and typical “love songs”.
A year later, Kayus Bankole, Graham Hastings, and Alloysious Massaquoi return with White Men Are Black Men Too. It builds on Dead but takes it another step while retaining the central tenets of that breakthrough album. As Bankole expressed in interview last spring, “Words should carry weight. As Fela Kuti said, music is a weapon, so use it to your best ability. He doesn’t have the most beautiful voice, but you can feel the soul. And us, we have soul, which allows us to do what we do and to write things that are meaningful.”
Now 27 years old and more than a decade making music together, the trio have come a long ways from the days of making music on Hastings’ £10 Cool-J Mix music program to becoming one of the UK’s buzziest bands. But despite their increasing popularity, the trio haven’t compromised the essence of their artistry. Instead, on WMABMT, they are still pushing the boundaries musically and with their songwriting. Like on Dead, the group continues to try to come to grips growing up in today’s complicated world and what it means to be an individual in the 21st Century, which is best evidenced on the rhythmic “27”; the scintillating “Still Running”; the TV on the Radio-esque, rapturous burner “Shame”; and the cataclysmic “Rain or Shine”, which follows on Dead’s “Get Up” with the K-os-like hip-hop and rock mix.
There are also songs that question the establishment and attempt to find peace within the chaos, such as on the graceful and beautiful “Nests”, the euphoric “Liberated”, and the whirlwind, quick-ending “Dare Me”. It is on “Sirens”, however, that hits the hardest despite the mellow and lush tones and textures. Lyrically, it is poignant, speaking about misuse of justice and that no individual is safe regardless if they have faith in a higher order. “Old Rock N Roll” and “John Doe” demonstrate the trio’s allegorical prowess. The former is essentially the title track of the album and uses “rock ‘n roll” as an allegorical weapon to speak about equality and unity among the different peoples of the planet. The incorporation of Middle Eastern textures further adds to the power of the song. The latter uses the name to identify unknown persons to say that one’s appearance, status, and name should be meaningless.
Maybe they won’t quite hit the stratosphere like Radiohead because of the complexity of their music, but like that great band they create music that is challenging, meaningful, and simply brilliant.
And like Dead, WMABMT is dark at points, but melodic. It’s tense and at times even startling. However, it is also an album about hope, despite the seemingly endless stream of questions throughout the album. Kayus Bankole, Graham Hastings, and Alloysious Massaquoi’s music is complex, but it is personal and has a purpose. There isn’t a wasted word or note, echoing the similar brilliance of another soul-searching album created nearly a decade ago – the groundbreaking Return to Cookie Mountain by TV on the Radio. And like that great band, Young Fathers aren’t here to just sell records; they’re here to challenge the way we see the world around us and ourselves because every word should provoke, inspire, and be meaningful.
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