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Hip-hop? Pop? R&B? Who cares? Music is saying farewell to genre

Image: Alexander Atack / Alamy Stock Photo

In a small church in Dingle, Ireland, a little shy of a decade ago, I watched the band Young Fathers play to a congregation of 85 festivalgoers. We had been warned that the performance might prove ruffling. There would be bright lights, we were told. Earplugs were passed along the rows.

It was not the first time I had seen this band, then newly burnished by a Mercury prize, but it was one of those performances that makes you excited not only by what they are in that moment but by what they might become. There was an urgency to the way they played, the drums sounded 10 feet tall, the vocals ferocious. I remember how they finished with a rendition of the track “I Heard” that made the pews quake. When they stormed off stage and down the aisle, it felt something like a conversion. Young Fathers returns this February with their fourth album, Heavy Heavy. It’s a short offering—10 tracks long, each song hovering around the three-minute mark. But it’s also an astonishing record, in which spoken word, call and response, rapped verses and the sweetest harmonies are bound together over rhythms that stomp and flutter and surge. The year is new, there are many albums to go before we sleep, but Heavy Heavy makes a bold and early claim for being one of 2023’s finest.

For more than a decade this band—made up of Alloysious Massaquoi, Graham Hastings and Kayus Bankole—has been forging a distinctive path. The idea to form a band came to them as teenagers, all three then regulars at a hip-hop club in their home city of Edinburgh. While their peers preoccupied themselves with rap battles, the trio harboured ambitions to be a boyband, arming themselves with pop songs and dance routines.

The music in their first release, Tape One, fell some way away from that, but still it pulsed with pop hooks, there beneath the hip-hop, dub, soul, R&B, beneath influences inherited from Liberia, Nigeria, America and Scotland. The songs they’ve made over the following years have proved equally unquantifiable. Theirs is a sound that does not and will not fit anywhere that you try to put it.

In a recent interview in DIY magazine, the band spoke of the sense of musical dislocation this has brought. They are not part of any scene; BBC 1Xtra still, they suggest, don’t deem them “urban” enough to play; they experience a continued amusement at journalists’ contorted efforts to fit them into a genre. The very idea of this seemed to strike Massaquoi as strange. “When I listen to music,” he said, “the stuff I’m into is the stuff where I feel like I can swim in it. It’s not so rigid.”

For some while, musical trend forecasters have been predicting the demise of genres. In recent times, they have begun to talk more about “moods” and “vibes”. Indeed, while last year’s annual Spotify Wrapped round-up included an appraisal of your favoured genres on the app, it also introduced a new feature, Audio Day, which revealed the “niche moods and aesthetic descriptors” of your listening habits across an average 24 hours. The terms were ludicrous and yet somehow captivating—apparently, I started out listening to Dramatic Royalcore Romanticism, moved through Inspirational Sad Boi Gothic, and was on to Exciting Feelgood Cathartic come the evening.

Similarly, alongside their genre-framed selections of, say, Disco Hits or Delta Blues, streaming services now offer increasingly feeling-focused playlists—“hug ur friends”, for instance, described as “songs for happy tears with human comfort blankets” and “sad girl starter pack” for those “sapphic songs that defined your musical taste as ‘yearning’.”

As someone who has written about music for 20 years, the dissolution of genres is a welcome development. Not because I want my listening tailored to me like my coffeeshop order, but because I don’t think our brains have ever truly thought in genres. Defining a band’s sound through such categories has long felt restrictive, as though we have built ourselves dams not only to creativity but also to the emotional swell that music can bring.

When we set aside the rigidity we have placed around music, exciting things happen. Things that might involve bright lights and earplugs and bass drums sending tremors across the nave. These are the things that push music forward, push it out from its own banks—to become the stuff in which you feel you can swim.

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