Young Fathers’ radicalization of pop is important and thrilling.
Young Fathers have an interesting definition of “pop”. The trio is swinging for arena-sized tours and sounds, but when you open an album with “tonight I don’t love God” being cooed over howling guitars, you might polarize a section of your target demographic. Not that Young Fathers have ever cared about things like that. Once upon a time, they were grouped alongside turn of the decade experimental hip-hop groups like Death Grips or Shabazz Palaces. They certainly had the brutality primed and aimed with tracks like “Queen Is Dead” off of Tape Two, but, even on the same album, they showed ambition far beyond any one label. Yes, even a large tag like “experimental hip-hop” could shackle Young Fathers when they crafted gems like the heartbreaking “I Heard”. White Men Are Black Men Too shows an absolute refusal to follow convention. The only parallels that pop up are Busdriver’s recent, manic Perfect Hair or Dear Science era TV on the Radio. Both of those artists also melded genres until they were unrecognizable but, honestly, Young Fathers are forging their own merry and insane path.
White Men Are Black Men Too is a departure from their last record, Dead. Where Dead dealt in creeping dread, White Men prefers to cast everything in technicolor. It’s like Dead’s biggest choruses mutated into their own songs. “Still Running” and “Shame”, the opening duo, feel like one long sing-along, pulsing with thudding energy. That energy is what’s consistent here; it’s been there since the first Young Fathers release, and they’ve pushed it into maximalism even more now. “Rain or Shine” feels like a repurposed Zombies track, with the trio screeching over vintage organ and the ramshackle “John Doe” feels seconds away from going out of tune (or burning out completely), only to erupt into a shimmering chorus filled with shouts of “let the good times roll!” and Disney-esque whistles. Even next to singles like “No Way” or “Get Up”, these are easily the biggest songs Young Fathers have ever made. They sound delightfully hungry on White Men. Even the quiet or creepy moments here are imbued with frenzy. “Liberated” and “Shame” rely on odd, 16th note percussion to ride at a thrilling clip, with “Liberated” shouting out Young Fathers’ MO over jubilant percussion “DON’T HESITATE!” Even “Nest”, a lovely break from the rushing pace of the album, is accented with handclaps and a humming choir. Young Fathers seem to hate the idea of “less is more”, that would just tie them down.
Those previously mentioned touches of vinyl-rummaging sounds are peppered throughout the album. Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole, and 'G' Hastings’ vocals always sound clean and polished when they’re front and center, but backing voices, pianos, strings, and anything else Young Fathers toss into the sound seem cherry picked from different musical time periods. Xylophone and fading keyboards open “27”, what would be the album’s catchiest track if it wasn’t for the cry of “I killed a man with my bare hands” right before the chorus. “Old Rock n Roll” has an off-kilter sample of some unidentified string instrument rambling along and the backbone of “Rain or Shine” is a creepy organ line swiped straight from the '60s. It makes the whole enterprise hard to place (especially with tracks like “Feasting” working on their own delirious logic). Without any context, White Men sounds like it could have been made at any time in the last few decades, it simply defies general tags (both in time and genre).
Don’t be fooled by the experimentation and rushing choruses. Yeah “let the good times roll”, but that line starts with “call me John Doe". Much like TV on the Radio, every moment of buoyant celebration is tethered with apocalypse. “Old Rock 'n' Roll” has a scream of “I’m tired of playing the good black!” Much has been made out of Young Fathers’ diverse backgrounds, but on White Man they sound fed up with the politics. “We’re in the 21st century and we’re still doing this?” the album asks. The album's centerpiece, “Sirens”, traces a history of violence from Cairo to Ferguson, stilted and swelling violins risings as the trio sings about the titular sound of warming. It’s a morsel sized “Dead Flag Blues”. Like Godspeed! You Black Emperor, Young Fathers wrap the end of the world in stunning tension.
This is why Young Fathers’ radicalization of pop is so important and thrilling. They have something to say. They hate conventions of race, music, and politics. Even in an age full of odd-balls, Young Fathers’ weirdness feels vital, singular. They might have to destroy pop to save it, but if anyone has a vision for a great new musical world, it’s Young Fathers.