Review Summary: "Do we know who we are and where we belong?"
One look at that cover and that title, and you understand exactly
what this album is all about. It doesn’t sugarcoat anything, and it’s better for not doing so. Adrian Younge wants you to know just how much he and his brothers and sisters have suffered from systemic racism in the United States. The American Negro
isn’t just an album condemning such bigotry - that much is clear - but also an account of the ripples it has caused among the black community. Present and past issues are addressed in painful detail, from the difference between “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” to the fact that 12 U.S. presidents owned slaves. And considering we all got a reminder of how bad things still are with the tragic death of George Floyd in 2020, The American Negro
is incredibly topical today. Even after all the progress made towards African-American rights over the last few centuries, it’s depressing that we still see such persistent remnants of an unfortunate stain on American history.
The music that anchors such heavy topics is incredibly smooth and well-arranged with shades of soul, jazz, funk, hip-hop, and a slew of other genres. As intense as the lyrics are, they also serve to make The American Negro
a race-affirming act of solidarity; as such, the music tends to be paradoxically uplifting at times. The beats are very old-school and reminiscent of Golden Age hip-hop from the late 80s, but not to the degree that they sound like an anachronism. “Revolutionize” is a perfect example, mixing soulful vocals with an organic lo-fi beat to create something that sounds oddly timeless. You’d imagine such a warm and comforting production style would clash with the grim subject matter, but it somehow provides the perfect compliment to it. Sitting atop the beats are lavish strings, some trumpet work, a few guitar flourishes, and what sounds like a classic Rhoades piano (or at least a keyboard that’s replicating its sound). Just listen to the jazzy keyboard chords that soar above the rolling basslines in “Dying on the Run”, or the way Younge’s rich soulful vocals perfectly match the psychedelic guitar lines found in “Light on the Horizon”; this is just the right kind of old-school.
Admittedly this sound does become a bit one-note after a while, but the songs are separated by spoken-word bits to break things up a little. Without the musical embellishments, these tracks are an even more direct communication of the album’s themes. They’re short, sweet, and a strong way to prepare the listener for each following track; they also manage to be some of the most impactful moments on the record. Opener “Revisionist History” immediately sets the tone, as Younge ponders on where African-Americans really are or belong in today’s society; this is all capped by one very poignant line:
“If my Blackness is a costume fabricated by stereotypes, what symbolizes my true identity?”
This is further elaborated on the following title track, in which he states:
”I am a black American
colored by America’s ineptitude;
I am an African American,
struggling with my allegiance to the motherland”
The tracks get at the root of The American Negro
, which is to ask: “how can we expect to be safe and prosperous here in America if the country’s corrupt system is already naturally against us… and has been for so long?”
It’s worth noting that the “future” comes up a lot in this record as well, as if Younge is envisioning what kind of future his child and other people’s children will have if systemic racism persists like it still does today. In that sense, the album can serve as much in an educational sense as it does a musical experience. The poetry being spoken and sung here is so dense and labyrinthine at times, yet you always get the full picture of what Younge is addressing at any given moment. The American Negro
is not a light listen, but it’s a powerful and informative one; it mixes soulful, optimistic melodies with a lot of lyrical pain and suffering. But at no point does Adrian Younge give up on the possibility of a future with more racial equality and less oppression. We all know what’s in our rearview mirror… what choices will you make when you start looking ahead?