“A pop album… it’s our interpretation of what a pop album should be”. In Alloysious Massaquoi’s own words, this is the philosophy behind Young Fathers’ fiercely anticipated second LP; the bold, if slightly confused White Men Are Black Men Too. Whilst its music still possesses the immediacy, energy and unpredictable twists and turns that rightfully won the trio last year’s Mercury Prize, you can’t help but feel that Young Fathers have bitten off rather more than they can chew with their follow up.
Hailing from Edinburgh, a city with a rich history of progressive thought, Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and ‘G’ Hastings are a thoroughly multi-cultural threesome who have been making music together since their teenage years, hitting the spotlight with their TAPE series in 2011. Never ones to shy away from politics, they ignore the right wing media, famously refusing to talk to them on the red carpet following their Mercury Prize victory. Dead, as well as its pointedly sonic non-conformity, was swimming in political and social commentary. More recently they have been outspoken about the growing dearth of working-class bands in modern British music.
White Men Are Black Too contains probably their most explicit political messages to date. Massaquoi’s own explanation of the album title suggests that it is primarily about tackling racial issues from a positive angle: “why should alarm bells start ringing… why should [race] be discussed behind closed doors and never confronted head on?” Massaquoi goes on to cite inspirational examples of how pop music has historically had a seismic impact on advancing racial equality, from the pioneering Motown artists and radio DJs of the 60s to Michael Jackson’s huge, global fame – correctly putting the racial advances they facilitated on a par with Dr King’s efforts.
From soul to punk rock, grunge to pop, Young Fathers tie everything together through the brute force of their visceral musicality.
But one can’t really shake the feeling that Young Fathers are recycling well-worn tropes here. They are encouraging a renewed discourse about race, but don’t seem to be offering anything new to the debate themselves. Motown, Jackson and early hip-hop were successful when challenging the status quo because of the fact that they sounded so different, presenting the fluid complexities of race relations in totally new ways to wide audiences. Young Fathers’ message is digested as if in an echo chamber; pretty and saccharine, it’s a political message pre-packaged and polished for the Tumblr generation.
A musical step away from the alt hip-hop trappings of last year’s Dead, the album channels a plethora of broad and permanently intermingling musical brush strokes. From soul to punk rock, grunge to pop, Young Fathers tie everything together through the brute force of their visceral musicality. Lo-fi production, cheap drum machines and raw mics add a hefty oomph to proceedings, providing the sense of immediacy, warmth and young passion that has helped to conjure up the sense of authenticity that is often associated with Young Fathers. Its unrefined aesthetic may be partly attributed to the fact that it was recorded piecemeal, “in a hotel room in Illinois, a rehearsal room in Melbourne, a freezing cellar in Berlin… and [Young Father’s] normal hole in the ground basement in Edinburgh,” presumably in-between their 140 or so live shows that they have undertaken in the last year.
The three demonstrate with aplomb their ability to masterfully straddle the leftfield and pop worlds with an ease that can’t help but put a smile on your face. The spacious chorus of Sirens and the tinkling glockenspiel that sits atop the dark guitar and percussion of Still Running are as catchy and radio-friendly as can be; White Men Are Black Too is certainly a pop album, and an accomplished one at that. If only its message was as endearingly rough around the edges as its sound.
Words: Anthony Prodromou