Young Fathers - Cocoa Sugar
Young Fathers are the kings of the liminal; their music, since their Mercury Prize-winning album debut album DEAD (2014), emerged and remains to be an elaborate, abstract superstructure built upon shifting foundations that seem to evade and defy the formality of genre. It seems that with their latest, long-awaited album, Cocoa Sugar (2018), the words that are usually ascribed to music reviews are now redundant. Young Fathers’ sound is, as ever, impossible to pin down: Cocoa Sugar is their church, and we, as listeners, are invited to worship at their altar.
It would come as no surprise to faithful listeners of Young Fathers that their music and motivations are full of striking contradictions. Raised by a collective intention to make a more “normal” and “linear” album, though it toys with the sweeter melodies and hooks typical of pop conventions, Cocoa Sugar never once betrays the abrasive, claustrophobic dissonance that seems to create a particular curdle that is their kingpin.
The opening track 'See How' gives a distinct flavour that sets a precedent for the entire album: the emergence of hip-hop beats, jarring instrumentals, and these divine, biblical vocals. The lyrics in See How explore the duality of judgement and expectations, representing just one of the many spiritual dimensions Cocoa Sugar takes on.
What is clear on every front, regardless of the song or its theme, is that this is an album of conflict: the way it can so easily merge dreams and nightmares, heaven and hell, through the polarity of the sounds and lyrics it experiments with. Lord, one of the single releases from the album, I think best illustrates this point. The single artwork states: “You can’t dance to it” – this song, like the rest of the tracks, is far more mellow than what Young Fathers fans are used to. It begins with a marriage of gospel choir vocals and a short, minimal piano loop that brings forth a lightness; the lead vocals are rich, sensitive and sermon-like, yet all the while it is anchored by this swelling bassline that gives what is otherwise a sacred song a hellish undertone.
Though both ‘Lord’ and ‘In My View’, the two single releases for Cocoa Sugar, are both jewels in this album’s crown, there were tracks that for me were far more striking. 'Holy Ghost', with its synth-loop instrumental that sounds like a toy drained of batteries is met with the most diverse vocal styles on the album. All three members’ voices impart something irreplicable and unique to this track: Bankole’s Nigerian heritage imbues his verses with a rich intonation of character and dynamism; G Hasting’s lends a far more sensitive, gentle contrast; and Massaquoi’s deep-rooted rapping brings forth a boldness that leaves the track ingrained upon my memory. Much like every song on this album, it stands alone, vivid and unforgettable.
But what may be the zenith of the album is, naturally, the final track: ‘Picking You’. Lyrically, it is remarkable; these are the kind of lyrics that are indelible, capturing that certain alchemy of truths summarised in short lines. To be able to cherry-pick lyrics from a song, in my opinion, an indicator of one that stays close with you. When the divide between poetry and lyrics blur - that’s when a song becomes truly great. ‘Picking You’ seems to do that without winding, without rambling, without tripping you up and tying you in knots. It’s quite effortless. With vocals charged with the same degree of passion and emotion as the blues, set to an almost tribal pulse created by the instrumental, it carries a solemnity – a finality, in fact – with the gravity of the drums.
The result is an album that is a landmark: thought-provoking without forcing thought upon us. In a music industry saturated with a lack of integrity, sensitivity or feeling, Cocoa Sugar is devastating in its consciousness, progressiveness and enlightenment. It is intelligent; it makes us rightfully uncomfortable. It solidifies Young Fathers as one of the most essential music groups of today. It would be a dishonour not to listen to them.