The multi-instrumentalist and composer’s concept album about Black existence cites everything while saying nothing. The record collapses under its own inertia.
The cover of The American Negro recreates a lynching postcard, perverse mementos that 19th and 20th century white Americans would pass around like trading cards. Some postcards would center the victims, gawking at their violated bodies with lurid satisfaction. Others would emphasize the crowd of onlookers, inviting the viewer, presumed to be white, to participate in the day’s activity. Adrian Younge gestures at this grim history and its continuation into the present—the date on the postcard is crossed out—but no moment on The American Negro ever brings these charged subjects to life.
Paired with a podcast series and a short film, The American Negro is intended as a big picture look at Black oppression and resilience. In theory, Younge should be suited to unearth the past. His well-documented reverence for bygone days is built into his love of analog and tape, and his music often goes to painstaking detail to recreate the textures of the classic soul records he cherishes. At first glance, that’s what’s happening here. Younge positions this album as message music in the vein of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, and Curtis Mayfield’s Super Fly. Appropriately, he rolls out an orchestra, a Fender Rhodes piano, a Hammond B3 organ, harpsichord, glockenspiel, wah pedal—you can practically smell the mothballs and afro sheen. But there’s no vision driving all this period porn. Younge is a student of history, but never its vessel.
Younge structures the album as an audio odyssey, pinging between free verse and the luxe, throwback soundscapes that are his calling card. Despite its outward elegance, though, the record is clumsy and inert. Younge, who wrote and performs all the spoken word pieces and is the album’s primary composer, has no presence as an orator. His awkward and stilted verses, written as rebukes to white supremacy, are tedious and unmoving. Though he frequently uses terms like “we,” “I,” and “you,” he’s often detached from his own message, his words broadcast from a sterile nowhere. “Have we learned anything?/Do we know who we are and where we belong?/Does our skin reasonably elicit fear and negative judgment?” he asks on “Revisionist History.” He sounds like a Russian Twitter bot raised on a strict diet of Hidden Colors quotes and Nas’ “Ultra Black.”
Even if his performances were more inspired, he’d still be hamstrung by his clunky lyrics. On “Intransigence of the Blind,” he contorts “We all come from Africa,” the stock phrase of people who think racism can be sloganeered out of existence, into a goofier shape. “I am the descendant of the chattel/And I am your brother/We are descendants of the Motherland/As every human shares the same African mother/Mitochondrially,” he says, sounding like Brother Sambuca. Elsewhere, on “Jim Crow’s Dance,” he tortures a metaphor until it breaks: “They argue that we should look at the stats/To better understand our circumstances/But statistics are records, and you can’t really listen to records that are cracked/Because the music skips.” It’s genuinely shocking that the line isn’t followed by finger snaps.
Younge is clearly writing from a place of real indignation, but his hamfisted diatribes are so lifeless and incoherent the record collapses under the inertia. He constantly invokes the past without engaging with it, naming multiple songs after victims of racist violence (“Margaret Garner,” “James Mincey Jr.”) and referencing Jim Crow, the TransAtlantic slave trade, and police brutality. There’s no narrative or thematic links to his time traveling other than “Black people were there.” Younge speeds through Black history like a bullet train, texture and detail and context stretching into a blur.
This lack of focus undermines the beauty of Younge’s arrangements. The record traffics in grandeur and importance without tethering them to perspective, curiosity, or imagination. No people or passions grace his elaborate stages, giving The American Negro a vacant, bloodless feel. The American Negro is a concept album without an essence, agitprop that doesn’t know what it’s agitating for, citing everything and saying nothing.
I often wondered where Younge sees himself in all this history. He’s pictured on the cover, hanging; he’s credited with playing over 20 instruments and conducting the orchestra; he even slips into the first person occasionally. But what does this music authorize him to say and be that the institutions of this country don’t? What about these compositions embodies his contradictions and convictions? Did making these songs clarify his experiences as “an American negro,” or further obscure them? These questions are rhetorical, but I’m awestruck by how ill-equipped this record leaves me to answer them.
Buy: Rough Trade