A 34-minute pseudo-narrative on the dying is an unlikely premise for a debut record, but for Edinburgh hip-hop trio Young Fathers, “unlikely” is one of the few words that sticks. The Scotland group has a background extending far beyond the borders of the UK, with strong cultural ties to Liberia, Nigeria, and not in the least, the U.S. After signing onto Los Angeles label Anticon in 2012, Young Fathers has shown an extraordinary willingness to operate beyond borders.
On Dead, the group’s debut proper, it’s never quite clear which continent the trio is touching down on. On the album opener “No Way,” for example, Young Fathers very forwardly address the issue of violence. But as the line “AK-47 take my brethren straight to heaven” is repeated throughout the track, there’s no knowing which “brethren” the song is in reference to, and in many ways, that’s the point.
Dead presents a transnational hip-hop, in which cultural context becomes only a nominal piece of the record. Lyrically, the album makes no plain reference to the politics of one nation, but plenty to poverty, to war, and to violence. In one of Young Fathers’ more graphic pieces of imagery, the trio imagines defecating on the floor of a palace in the opening verse of “Low.” (“Now don’t go telling me it’s for the poorest / Now Imma take a sh-t in your palace / I just want to make life easy on your eyes.”) The portrait painted here, on a crude level, could be taken as a broad indictment of the rich, but perhaps more importantly, it’s an exhibition of anger and confusion. These emotions are especially made clear in one of the track’s repeating choruses: “You lied to me.”
At face a commentary on mortality, Dead is more broadly a narrative on authority. At points, this authority is a gun-other times a father, a lawyer, a rich man, or even the devil himself. Death, the ultimate authority, becomes an essential symbol in the album, ultimately bringing its disparate stories together. Dying, in Young Fathers’ telling, runs parallel to the coming of manhood, as it’s told in “Am I Not Your Boy,” the album’s penultimate track (“Am I not your boy / Your child / The kid that I once was is dead”).
The record ends with an incredible image: a man face down, castrate at the foot of the devil, spitting on Satan’s Prada shoes, longing for the embrace of his father. The album’s narrative ends with a gloomy outlook: authority is inescapable, even in manhood, even in death.
The manner in which Young Fathers reimagines common lyrical themes of hip-hop through this telling lens of authority and power has everything to do with the actual orchestrations of its music. The project relies heavily on drum machines, and it uses a very malleable soundscape to introduce sounds atypical of hip-hop. A nod to the trio’s Scottish heritage, the band places a layer of distorted bagpipe atop an irregular baseline during an instrumental break in “No Way,” and surprisingly, it works. It’s these unlikely choices that come to define the sound of Dead.
It’s subversive, almost mocking to hip-hop. The natural tendency here would be to frame Young Fathers with a list of popular names in hip-hop, and on some level, this is helpful. Some of the more obvious comparisons to be made would relate Young Fathers’ work to that of The Weeknd or Childish Gambino. At moments, Dead would seem to fit best into this trippy, psychedelic category of hip-hop, but there come other points on the album when Young Fathers sound something like the Postal Service, or Frank Ocean, or Tyler, The Creator.
Underlying this all is the most rewarding characteristic of Dead’s sound-there are many frames, but no one image, and at the end of analysis, there’s nothing two-dimensional about this music. There’s no one accent to the voices on the album. It’s sung, it’s spoken, it enters a rap verse only to soon break into spoken word or falsetto. Boxing this project is an impossible task-it operates beyond borders. It’s at once a story of authority and a narrative on escaping it. It’s spitting at the foot of the devil.