5 reasons why Young Fathers are great Mercury Prize winners (not being George Ezra is one of them)

Edinburgh's finest: Mercury winners Young Fathers
Edinburgh’s finest: Mercury winners Young Fathers

I am thrilled that Edinburgh-based rap group Young Fathers have beaten off a particularly strong field to win the Mercury Prize. Their Dead LP is now officially designated as brilliant and I couldn’t agree more. Before I get into my top 5 reasons why their album is great, I want to say: people, listen to the 12 albums on the shortlist, pick the ones you like, and buy them. Young Fathers only got £20,000 for winning the prize, which, by the sounds of the record, will barely cover their annual weed bill. Show some love to the artists, and buy their work.

Okay, here’s my five reasons why Dead by Young Fathers is splendid:

1. Lyrical madness
On the poppiest song on the album, Get Up, one of the rappers says:

“Taking off my clothes at the lido
all I got is my decadent credo”

Which is genius, right? Fair enough, he has to pronouce “lido” leedo to make it rhyme with credo, but when you’ve got that level of mad couplet bubbling up, it would be churlish to quibble about a mispronounciation. Elsewhere on the album, one of the lads starts a rap with the assertive “bish bosh”, rhymes “Liberian” with “Presbyterian” (underlining the band’s Afro-Caledonian roots) and talks about “handing out endorpins to nature’s orphans.” Wordplay is just that – playing with words – and Young Fathers are a rabble playing Scrabble with Margaret Drabble. (This is why I am not a rapper.)

2. They are not George Ezra
Some people, a lot of people, seem to like George Ezra. Why, or even how, I do not know. George Ezra is about as rock n’ roll as William Pitt the Younger. Listening to George Ezra makes me think that he is instinctively in favour of fracking. Not that they care a jot about such chart-topping codswallop, but Young Fathers are the polar opposite of George Ezra. The Mercury judges, in their wisdom, understand this and have given Young Fathers a platform for people to see that there is an alternative to stadium-folk.

The old standing in front of graffiti to make it look like you didn't grow up in a stately home trick: George Ezra
The old standing in front of graffiti to make it look like you didn’t grow up in a stately home trick: George Ezra

3. They are like Kanye without being complete twats (yet)
On the jollily titled song, War, one of the boys (I have no idea which) starts ranting “you chopping me down like the Amazon” which is the kind of idiotic nonsense Kanye spouts. It’s one of those lyrics right on the borderline between utter shit and utter cool – just like most of Kanye’s. This shows Young Fathers have the potential to be both massive stars and megalomaniac lunatics. I like that.

Note to Young Fathers: it's all right copying Kanye, just leave Taylor Swift alone if you see her at awards ceremonies
Note to Young Fathers: it’s all right copying Kanye, just leave Taylor Swift alone if you see her at awards ceremonies

4. Musically, it is all over the place
Also like Kanye, they take a trawler to the world of music and pick out the bits they like. Hence, the album starts with a bit of squeezebox, which is probably not something P Diddy would have considered.

Other songs sound, in part or in whole, like: The Prodigy; Burial; a particularly violent video game with a moral message like “bad things happen to good people, a lot”; Justin Timberlake after a trip to Guantanamo; Andre 3000; a teenage boy trying to making himself pass out purely through bass noise; gospel without the redemption; Boyz II Men getting mugged at knifepoint, in a sewer, by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; a fat boy farting into a fan. You get the idea. It’s commercial, sort of.

5. It is only 32 minutes long
I am not criticising long rap albums. One of my favourite albums is Redman’s Muddy Waters joint, which is about 70 minutes and has more comedy skits than actual songs. In those skits he comes up with such timeless acronyms as NASWIPP (N*ggas Against Smoking Weed In Public Places) and “IKSRFO” (I’m Knocking Somebody Right the Fuck Out), which my life would be a greyer place without.

That said, there is something pleasurable about a rap album finishing its business at just over the half hour mark. Wu-tang’s knowledge god, the GZA, once remarked, “Make it brief, son, half short and twice strong,” and Young Fathers have taken that advice on board.

Of course, the Wu followed up their first album with the unwieldy Wu-tang Forever double LP, which begins with some shambling old dude named Poppa Wu giving a not interesting sermon about fuck all for six minutes. Therefore, I will stand by Young Fathers if they get famous and obnoxious and think it a good idea to get Frankie Boyle to open up their next album with a lengthy diatribe against the English generally, and George Ezra specifically. In fact, that might not be a bad idea.

redman muddy waters

Mercury Prize 2014: the contenders (plus winner prediction)

I have always viewed the Mercury Prize with suspicion. The most salient reason for my suspicion is that M People won the award in 1994 with their soul-sapping soul album, Elegant Slumming. If that is what it takes to win the thing, it raises the question, what were the judges looking for? An album to make children realise there is no hope?

Fortunately, things couldn’t get that bad again. Even in 2007, when the frankly shocking Klaxons won, the British people could rest easy in the knowledge they weren’t as bad as M People.

This year’s nominees have been picked with a caution appropriate to an award sponsored by Barclaycard. (Note to Sleaford Mods: stop being so working-class, and so angry, and you might have a chance.) However, the list of nominees is rather exciting. Yes, there is a fair amount of turgid rubbish – but at least it is turgid rubbish we can hate with some vigour. And there are four or five albums which are very good, two outrageously so.

I have waded through Spotify listening to this stuff, and here is my summary of the runners and riders:

Damon Albarn – Everyday Robots

Listening to this album is like watching Ryan Giggs play football over the past few years.* Damon’s a bit slower than he used to be, but still better than most, and occasionally spectacular. Here, he has assimilated his work on soundtracks, world music and even opera to potent, if restrained, effect on this sumptuous, sighing, swooning album.

*NB: Not like Ryan Giggs’s private life. That would have been a WHOLE different album, probably by Chris Brown. And R Kelly. And Goldie Lookin’ Chain.

Not a very good cover, but a very good album
Not a very good cover, but a very good album

Jungle – Jungle

The people in this group have named their band and their album Jungle, yet they do not produce jungle music. That’s a devious, deceitful moniker they’ve adopted, like opening a public school and only letting in rich people. In any case, their bland, superficially cool “soul” music sounds like something Huw Edwards would listen to while taking his mistress for a drive in the drop-top on a Sunday.

Anna Calvi – One Breath

Music for people who like Fleetwood Mac, and want to take a bold step into the future.

Anna Calvi: a boring person dressed up as an interesting person
Anna Calvi: a boring person dressed up as an interesting person

Royal Blood – Royal Blood

Murky thud-rock, the sound of a growly fart endlessly shuddering through your bowels. (I’m a vegetarian. I know.)

Despite this, it appears the record industry has decided Royal Blood are the rock band of choice for the next 6-12 months. Therefore, there is every likelihood we will see this witless duo prowling through the UK’s larger live venues, acting with all the subtlety and bonhomie of an underfed, undersexed invading army. Talking of which, I reckon this music would be hugely popular with the Russian army (although, on second thoughts they’re all probably listening to the new one from U2. Or, more likely, Living on a Prayer).

If you think this picture is dull, listen to Royal Blood's album
If you think this picture is dull, listen to Royal Blood’s album

FKA Twigs – LP1

I don’t know what she’s singing about, and I don’t care. FKA Twigs sounds filthy, and weird, like Bjork has gone up to heaven and done an album with Aaliyah. Marvellous.

Praises to FKA Twigs
Praises to FKA Twigs

Nick Mulvey – First Mind

The kind of hellish folk music that makes me want to start a riot in Waitrose and set the Cotswolds on fire. I tolerated track one. On track two he rhymed “sadness” with “gladness”, at which point I switched off, fearing further provocation.

The photographer asked Nick Mulvey to look like he was thinking
The photographer asked Nick Mulvey to look like he was thinking

East India Youth – Total Strife Forever

Brilliant minimalist electro-folk. I don’t have anything witty to say about this. Simply a very good album, with a lovely mix between vocal and instrumental tracks. A proper reviewer might call this an unalloyed joy.

Polar Bear – In Each and Every One

A work of genius from start to finish. The only album on this list I would declare a masterpiece. However, to give some context: that is an electro-jazz masterpiece. Which means, if you like Bitches Brew, Detroit techno, and a bit of freak-rock, then this is right down your alley. If you like tasteful middle-of-the-road rock such as Anna Calvi, this might make you run for the Anderson shelter (and if you haven’t got one, gawd help you!).

Bombay Bicycle Club – So Long, See You Tomorrow

Music I would be excited about if I hadn’t heard any other music.

Kate Tempest – Everybody Down

Kate Tempest picks up awards as regularly as I pick up houmous from Londis. That is, about three to five times a week. The woman, while being a poet and rapper with a rare gift for storytelling, has somehow been designated as having a higher purpose: to win awards. I tend to hear about awards because Kate Tempest has won them. I am therefore going to stick my neck out and say, as this is an award, and Kate Tempest has been nominated, she will win it.

There are good reasons for her winning. Her poetry feels urgent, visceral, and vaguely zeitgeisty. She has turned a marginal interest – poetry – into something which can be heard on Radio 1. This is good for everyone, including myself, in the spoken word scene.

Her show, Brand New Ancients, was the best thing I saw on stage last year. That said, I’m not quite such a big fan of this album. It is well above average, but the interplay between words and production is not as seamless as, say, Young Fathers (see below). Over here is the music. Over there is Kate. They are good, but separate. It is still a solid album, however, and, more than likely, an award-winning one.

And the winners is...
And the winners is…

Young Fathers – Dead

If OutKast were from Edinburgh they might sound like this. Young Fathers prove that the Scots are pound-for-pound the best songwriters on earth. This is dark, uncompromising rap music, yet always tuneful, musically fantastic, and often surprising. A welcome antidote to commercial UK rap. And only 34 minutes long.

GoGo Penguin – v2.0

Just jazz. As in Just Juice. It’s Just Jazz.