In 2015, the last thing an artist or band would want to be associated with is a single genre. The pigeonhole labels once used to describe music have gone the way of the record stores they once helped partition into sections, and most music that doesn’t at least flirt with “genre-bending” (a favorite publicist buzz word) is dismissed, at best, as a pleasant anachronism.
So why then would Scotland-bred trio Young Fathers, having ridden the stylistic ambiguity of their debut full-length Dead to a surprise Mercury Prize (the UK’s most prestigious annual contemporary music award) win for best album last year, declare their follow up White Men Are Black Men Too to be a proper pop LP?
“I think personally it was the fact that pop and rock has the biggest space on the shelf,” says Alloysious Massaquoi on the phone from Scotland. “Being put into the pop and rock category is better because sometimes it’s frustrating that we’ve been labeled as an alternative hip-hop group, and we ask ourselves, ‘Alternative to what?’ We’ve always thought of ourselves as a pop group, so it’s time to take the reigns and tell people who we are because everybody seems to be making up their own assumptions of what we are.”
From the title to the songs themselves, everything about White Men Are Black Men Too challenges accepted ideas about labels and identity in both music and society at large, starting with the group themselves. The trio of Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and G Hastings represent Scotland by way of various other countries: Massaquoi was born in Liberia, while Bankole spent part of his childhood in Maryland before returning to his and Hastings’ hometown of Edinburgh, where the three met at a hip hop club party in 2008.
It took until their 2011 mixtape Tape One and its sequel Tape Two for audiences to really take notice, but by the time Dead was released in January 2014, the group was being hailed by critics as the kind of eclectic, unpredictable and broadly influenced band that forward-thinking audiences would surely appreciate. White Men Are Black Men Too is indeed all of those things, but also a conscious effort to distill their complex concepts and sounds into a more accessible, and thus ‘pop,’ product.
“The new record is about simplifying everything,” says Massquoi. “If you have 10-15 lines, you make that into six and still say what you want to say and get that across. You have the element of repetition, very much part of the whole pop format, where you say one line over and over again and it becomes stronger. You still get the message, and we still keep the weight of the words, but it’s in a pop way.”
That’s no small task, but Young Fathers succeeds in captivating ears as much as minds on White Men. Recorded in a cold basement studio in Berlin rather than the usual cold basement studio in Edinburgh, it’s both chaotic and confident, hitting on topics of race, identity and perception from every angle but straight ahead; at times it comes in the guise as punchy and bright as, say, TV on the Radio (“Shame”), and at others it’s the rumbling drive of opener “Still Running.” Few ostensibly pop records are this irrepressible, or offer more provocative questions than they do answers, and it’s all by design.
“The title opens up a conversation that we all think needs to be had,” says Massquoi. “It’s about learning the differences and acknowledging the differences between people. The world is not black and white. You feel that sort of gets put to the masses — you are this or you are that, but it’s more complex than that.”
YOUNG FATHERS W/ MAS YSA + JAW GEMS. THURS 4.9. GREAT SCOTT, 1222 COMM AVE., ALLSTON. 617-566-9014. 9PM/$13/18+. YOUNG-FATHERS.COM.