young fathers: Cocoa sugar
by Sarah Jack
from the print issue
Young Fathers are simultaneously the muse and nemesis of music journalists. Over the span of their six-year career, they have transcended basic genre blending by developing their own distinctive sound which extends far beyond their generic definition of ‘alternative hip-hip group’ with an abstract melange of blues, pop, afrobeat and even gospel influences to name but a few, all feeding in to a style that is truly original. All of this renders them almost impossible to define and furnishes them with an air of enigma which - judging by their detached public appearance and cold interview manner - they seem to relish in.
Cocoa Sugar marks the fifth album release from Edinburgh trio (consisting of Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and Graham Hastings) since their equally genre-defying debut Tape One in 2013. Its highly anticipated arrival on 9th March was pre-empted by the release of singles Lord and In My View, the videos for both of which effectively heightened anticipation through their use of powerful, ambiguously constructed visuals which emphasize the trio’s experimental approach to their art. The release also handily coincided with the band’s return to their home of Leith in Edinburgh after a prolonged touring stint; the Scottish prodigals will no doubt be welcomed back with open arms to their home turf, with forthcoming performance dates in Glasgow and Dublin already sold out.
Right from the initial notes of the album’s opening track, See How, Cocoa Sugar is immediately discernible as a Young Fathers product, distinctively idiosyncratic and infectiously rhythmed. The building of layers to the sound throughout the track is punctuated with melodic outbursts accompanied by exaggerated synth distortion and bass reverbs.
Those hoping for the wild, Death Grips-esque maximalism which earned 2014’s DEAD its renown may be disappointed by the stripped-back, detached nature of the album in relation to their previous work. Constantly a font of paradoxes, the relatively collected nature of Cocoa Sugar’s tracks suggests a maturity in the group’s musical development but at the same time a less engaged, humorous element to their work.
A downside of the band’s characteristic non-identity, however, and perhaps a stylistic aspect inspired by their recent tour in America, is the loss of the Scottish accents so distinct in their earlier work; in this album, the cadence is remarkably neutral, with the exception of Bankole’s rapping style which, bizarrely, recalls Kendrick Lamar with its high pitch and Americanised intonation.
The leading vocals of See How gently meander their way through the track, and those of Fee Fi are practically whispered as the listener is plunged into dark piano riffs and the ominously childish sound of Bankole’s vocal interlude contribute to an underlying sense of unease in the track. It isn’t until the appearance of Wire and Toy later in the album that the we find same cathartic energy of earlier tracks Shame and GET UP.
Stand out track In My View puts a surprising twist on the band’s usual non-conformity as it shows them tending towards a poppier sound. Whilst the adoption of this genre has lead the track to reach the greatest mainstream audience of the record (it is now Young Fathers’ most popular Spotify song), the ironic guidelines for commercial success listed in the accompanying music video reassures us that the group aren’t entirely serious about committing to the pop sphere in the near future. The cutting cynicism of Wow, with lines such as “What a time to be alive/ Imma put myself first/ Everything is so amazing”, also indicates scepticism of certain aspects of millennial attitudes and culture.
Since the inclusion of the Leith Congregational Choir in their 2017 release Only God Knows, the band seem to have developed a fixation with the theme of religion; gospel-style vocals and organ chords emerge as a recurring feature in several of the album’s tracks, primarily in Lord’s incongruous mix of an enthusiastic choral exclamation “Lord don’t pay me no mind/ I’ll take another one and I’ll be yours”, juxtaposed with explosive bass notes and perplexing lyrics such as “While the government wants to control/ Our country will set you free.”
This lyrical esotericism continues to baffle throughout the album. Lines such as “Don’t you turn my brown eyes blue/ I’m nothing like you” imply a satirical message of sorts, but towards whom or what it is directed is as good as anyone’s guess. Perhaps it’s us, the critical listener, that the trio enjoys winding up with their whimsically poetic yet seemingly senseless lyrical content.
Picking You brings the album to a close with processional rhythms beat out on snare drums accompanying an emotional vocal melody, creating a sombre mood emphasised by melancholic lyrics “Why, why do I always end up with Scorpios and Geminis?” paired with the hard-hitting chorus line “The only time that I go to church is when someone’s in the casket”. The final seconds of the album, fading out to a chanting of “ooh-ah”, leave us in thoughtful reflection, again questioning what exactly in this melting pot of complex elements the band is trying to communicate, if anything at all.
Cocao Sugar is undeniably slicker and more refined than the early experimental days of Tape 1, and while the album’s overall sound is still distinctly identifiable as Young Fathers, the album lacks the pace and energy of their previous work, forcing the listener to focus on the stylistic nuances and lyrical content. We ask ourselves what exactly it is that the band are trying to resolve or detach themselves from in this stripped-back and seemingly disparate work. That said, on the whole Young Fathers ought to be lauded in avoiding the temptation of reinvention and remaining true to their well-loved eccentric style. They have also remained loyal to their roots and believe in supporting local creative events, as evidenced by their upcoming appearance at the Edinburgh Hidden Doors Festival in June. Their performance at the festival will undoubtedly contribute to the success of this relatively new project which aims to promote and expose creative innovation in the Scottish capital.