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Be Still My Avant Hip-Hop Heart—Young Fathers’ “Dead”

Young Fathers

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A confession: I have always had a huge crush on Anticon Records. I mean, this label just gets me. I think of them as the Radiohead of hip-hop labels. Avant-garde and aesthetically challenging, always putting out complex music that tests the boundaries of their proclaimed genre, all the while remaining appealing in some intractably important way. Add to that the Anticon collective’s penchant for poetically invasive language and undisguised political rage, and you might as well just color some big hearts over my eyes in the note I’m asking you to pass to them. Seriously, I put Odd Nosdam’s Burner right up there with Kid A. In my not-so-humble opinion, this shit is that good.

Enter Edinburgh’s Young Fathers. The band came together in Scotland but the trio took widely differing paths to get there. Alloysious Massaquio is originally from Liberia, having moved to Edinburgh at age four. Kayus Bankole was born there but lived in the U.S. and Nigeria growing up, before moving back in his teens. Graham Hastings is the only member who spent his entire youth in Edinburgh, hailing from the Drylaw neighborhood in the north. They formed Young Fathers in 2008, garnered some artists-to-watch-out-for type attention in the U.K. over the next few years, and in September 2012 signed a U.S. deal with L.A.’s Anticon. Their debut full length, Dead, came out earlier this month. So, just to be clear, we have a rap group, whose members’ influences (and childhoods) span the globe, from a country that has been a well-spring of ultra-high quality experimental music for decades, releasing an album on the Thom Yorke of American underground hip-hop labels.

I am Ahab. Dead is my white fucking whale.

All of which is to say that I was primed for some serious disappointment here. My expectations were in the stratosphere. Of course, Dead was a letdown. The thing is, though, Young Fathers got closer than three dudes making a debut album have any right to. I mean, really close. If you throw out my starry eyed daydreams of what it should be, then this record kills it.

young fathers pic

The first notes on the album emanate from an accordion. “No Way” starts with a brief melody before the squeeze box is joined by an electronic bass beat and someone yelling while pounding his chest, like a kid imitating Tarzan. Massaquoi says nonchalantly, “Count me in, G,” and the song springs into the first verse like a sprinter off the starting blocks. The opener lays it out: disillusionment, the gulf between first and third world, not belonging, being a native of the colonized land in the heart of the former empire. “Got me feeling Presbyterian but inside I’m still Liberian / Never find peace the war is too pretty.” And later: “AK47 take my brethren straight to heaven.” I used the words ‘aesthetically challenging’ above for a reason. Dead is not for the faint of heart. Some of these songs are downright off-putting at first. But with good reason. Consider this lyric from “LOW:”  “Now don’t go tellin’ me it’s for the needs of the poorest / Now I’m’a take a shit in your palace.” “WAR” begins with some raspy half rhymes over a bass line, and it’s meant to sound a little ugly. Then, at forty-two seconds, enter a mini-xylophone, some knee slap percussion, an electronic string arrangement, and a ghostly sounding chorus: “You close your eyes when I’m reaching your door.” Or take “Mmmh Mmmh.” I hated the beginning of this track upon first listen. Young Fathers lets you toil in the miasma of the song’s opening for about forty-four seconds before they lift you up and deposit you in a hip-hop tribalist’s dream, complete with some far off goddess repeating the title. “You’re not dead ‘til I kill ya.” By the end, I was bobbing my head and smiling from earbud to earbud. The percussion on Dead reminds me more of Architecture in Helsinki than it does Jay-Z. The beats are complex, often containing multiple strata ranging from Korg-created bombs to drumsticks on cans and the aforementioned knee slaps. It will make you move, but the sonic marionette strings will have you looking more spastic than smooth. By the time “Hangman” comes around, we are steeped in this nervous condition. “Hangman / A bullet a piece for the two of you (motherfucker) / For you (fatherfucker).” Which makes how Dead ends all the more significant. “Am I Not Your Boy,” the second to last track, is a ballad in which Massaquio sings to his mother. Lyrically, it is about as naked as it gets. “Being good ain’t enough lately / I ain’t got the strength to save me.” This track along with the album’s finale, a spoken word haunter that ends in a group chant, surprised the hell out of me. Yes, there’s a devil in “I’ve Arrived.” And when the Young Fathers are chanting “Ola ‘ello / Ola ‘ello / Ola ‘ello / I’ve arrived,” it could very well be that devil, or death, walking in the door. But damn if it’s not mesmerizing.

If you live in Western Europe or near either coast of the United States, chances are Young Fathers is playing near you before this coming summer’s over. I imagine most people will walk out of their shows with one fist in the air, even if it is twitching a bit. Me, I’ll be the doe-eyed one. The guy with cartoon music notes and hearts rising from his head.