[13 February 2014]
Hip-hop from the UK is often panned in the U.S. Despite massively successful artists like Plan B, Kano, and JME, no hip-hop artist from across the pond has made a major dent in the American rap consciousness since the Streets released Original Pirate Material. Young Fathers might be one of the few groups to pull the same trick. They’ve been slowly building an audience in the more experimental fringes of hip-hop with releases Tape one and Tape two but their newest record is their best yet. Dead is fiery, Scottish born, Scott Walker referencing glorious mess that reveals the true potential in one of the most exciting acts in hip-hop.
For those of who were turned off when “experimental” and “hip-hop” were mentioned in the same sentence, it’s not quite what you think. Though some inspiration is derived from more industrial sounds, this isn’t a Yeezus clone or a direct remolding of Death Grips. If there’s any one band that Dead is a reminder of it’s TV on the Radio. Much like the Brooklyn indie legends, Young Fathers base their sound on one central genre but mix and mash so many other sonic influences that the album becomes a dizzying thrill. It’s clear from the very start of the record that Young Fathers don’t care too much for genre restrictions. An accordion marks the beginning of “No Way” before a rapid kick drum slams in and one of the many passionate verses that fill Dead over takes the song. And that’s just the first 20 seconds. Tribal chants, chorus singing, and grinding percussion all come in before the thunderous outro brings the party to its pummeling ending.
Young Fathers go hard in the paint on a good number of these tracks but they have no problem playing around with calmer beats. The second track “Low” is based off a stark background and the trio’s excellent singing (they are self-described as a “psychedelic hip hop boy band” after all) and “I Am Not Your Boy” even has chimes floating around their spiritual singing. Still the most fascinating moments come Young Fathers’ journeys in darker and stranger sounds. The first part of “Paying” has deeply disturbing falsetto voices accusing an unseen danger of being “an evangelist” before the terrifying second half warps the song. The echoing screams of “motherfucker!” are as chilling as they are threatening.
The shouts and threats made towards the “evangelist” during “Paying” aren’t the only religious references on Dead. In fact Dead is filled with biblical symbolism. The first verse in “Mmmh Mmmh” describes a “suffering Isaac” and “Just Another Bullet” has the trio playing a man and the demons that plague him. Over clacking percussion our tortured man proclaims “See I be praising the lord!” only for hissing voices to reply “then worshiping the devil”. Blood is described as “dirty and grey” as the unsettling synth line creeps along it’s a damn twisted song but not even close to the album’s most disturbing track. That honor goes to the album centerpiece “Hangman”. Paranoia infects every note and beat and the jittery verse paints the picture of a man in a state of rapid mental decline. When the words “I’m going, going, gone…” fade away into the gritty background there’s no doubt that the narrator’s sanity was lost long ago. Even with the shudder inducing verses the chorus manages to be an oddly moving segment that sounds like the trio recorded their beautiful voices in a church.
Dead is a deeply weird album. It’s probably the strangest hip-hop album made since Death Grip’s Government Plates. Even lead single “Get Up”, which appears to be the album’s most accessible song, reveals itself to be an intensely bizarre one. Yes it’s built around a club ready hook of “Get up and have a party!” but the lower end seems to be made from the bass line of Radiohead’s “All I Need”. The second part of the song drops the party pretense and a creepy message is intoned “I heard you got guns well I got fun / I got something sweet which you call sin.” And that’s all before the explosive final chorus comes in. If Dead proves anything it’s that Young Fathers are one of the most versatile acts in hip-hop today, they’re excellent rappers, producers, and singers. This is just their proper debut. Expect excellent insanity in the future.