(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Recording review - Young Fathers, Tape One (2011/2013)

Phenomenal music lacks lyrical strength

"I want you
I need you
But there ain't no way I'm ever gonna love you."

What does Meatloaf have to do with Young Fathers' Tape One? Two out of three ain't bad. Truly great hip hop satisfies three criteria related to the context for the rap, the lyrical flow, and the strength of the words. The context --  the backing beats, the samples and music -- are what make you want to listen to the track. A well chosen sample or infectious rhythm grabs your ear and creates the mood for the cut. The rapper's flow expresses his personality, whether it's fast and tight or uses offbeat phrasing and internal rhymes. That persona sells the song. Ultimately, though, the most important thing is the words themselves. They can be funny or serious, sensitive insight or braggadocio, but the artist has to say something and make sense, at least internally.

Young Fathers do a phenomenal job creating context on Tape One. The killer low-fi sound, the mix of African rhythms and chants, and subtle electronic treatment built an exotic musical world. The three members form a melting pot, drawing on a rich background of influences. Alloysious Massaquoi is from Liberia, Kayus Bankole is of Nigerian descent, and Graham "G" Hastings is native to Edinburgh, where the band came together. Listen to the soulful reggae sound on "Romance" or the synth-driven Afro-beat groove that kicks off "Remains"; each song has a unique character. The band originally released the album privately as a mixtape and that cassette tape production quality is lovingly preserved in this label reissue. The hiss and soft distortion give the songs warmth, suggesting a history of passing hands and multi-generation dubs.

While the backing tracks are strong, the trio does a good job with their delivery, too. It's easy to tell the three apart both by sound and character. Massaquoi's accent is English with a hint of Scottish and he projects a rougher image that almost punk. Bankole sounds the most overtly African, with an accent and a sing-song style. Hastings reaches for a stronger American rapper voice. The arrangements take advantage of the differences, featuring some good hand-offs. The guys can sing too, so a song may split into separate raps, and then come together in a shared harmonic moment. "Sister" shows this off, along with a sweet musical context. The track starts with African women chanting over a simple synth line. Massaquoi raps first, his flow even, albeit a bit stiff. Bankole takes over with a call and response delivery and his voice is more playful. The three come together to sing the Afro-soul chorus, "Only your sister knows." Hastings kicks off the next verse with a balanced recitation that recalls De La Soul. A few songs later, they play a steady rap over a sparse beat on "Remains" to add a layer of tension to the moody music in the breaks.

That brings us to the most important quality, the lyrical content. Young Fathers go for an oblique, poetic style. They do find promising phrases that stick, but a few cool fragments aren't enough. Without enough of a conceptual skeleton, the parts never quite connect. "Deadline" tosses out a killer line, "We are pretenders, making the headlines," but can't pull together a real narrative. The song ends with, "Don't you turn my home against me/ Even if my house is empty," which is another great line, but it doesn't anchor anything. This is frustrating because the tune has a compelling sound, from the distorted beat start to the bass tone grind ending.

The music can be evocative, but a rap cut is crippled if the words are less coherent than Michael Stipe. "Sister" loses it's spark with lines like Bankole's:
Waterfalls appear in the centerfold
Bite your lady with your teeth like an animal
Like the desert in the night, it gets cold
To get the credit, scan your barcode
Later, "Rumbling" wanders even further into the weeds, taking a drunkard's walk past placebos, miscegenation and addiction. With the proper care this approach could be surrealistic, but it seems merely underdeveloped.

Maybe this is a harsh assessment of Tape One. To a casual ear, the music stands out as exceptional and that should carry some weight. But hip hop is all about the spoken word and the word deserves a higher standard than pop or other genres. As a full package, it's a decent album, but Young Fathers need to find their message before they'd be great. With a better sense of narrative, the band could deliver ideas that deserve the backing tracks. That might also help them extend their songs. With eight songs in 20 minutes, the album settles for interludes that are over before they reach fruition.

(This review originally appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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