Young Fathers - Cocoa Sugar
The impressive musical trio from Scotland (insert obligatory Mercury Prize winners from 2014 line) create music that is remarkably distinct while being remarkably eclectic. Blending together hip-hop, gospel, tribal polyrhythms, lo-fi alternative soul, trip-hop and more, Young Fathers sprawl their musical emotion across genres with disregard for where it all fits in the musical landscape. With Cocoa Sugar, Kayus Bankole, Graham Hastings, and Alloysious Massaquoi give us a multitude of things to unpack in its 36-minute length. Cocoa Sugar is both spontaneous and meticulous. There is an innate equilibrium within the talented group that balances unforgettable hooks with cacophonous catharsis. When the pendulum swings too far to the mainstream accessible side, they swing back towards the unconventional, making Cocoa Sugar an impactful, albeit fragmented listening experience.
Their third studio album, Cocoa Sugar is a raw, vulnerable, almost spiritual exploration of what it is to be human. While their previous album White Men Are Black Men Too was a bit too messy, a bit too dissonant and unable to harness its urgency, Cocoa Sugar paces its sporadic flare evenly. Due to its intricate and kinetic pace, 36 minutes feels like 56 minutes. The album opens with “See How”, layered in deep bass and scraping strings. Connecting with a common theme throughout the album, “See How” deals with the tension between sex and love. Lyrics, “Give me lovers so I may have my pleasures and not lose my heart” explore a desire to avoid commitment and therefore, hopefully, heartbreak.
Three songs in, “In My View”, the second single off the album, is the centerpiece of Cocoa Sugar’s raw, visceral human investigation. It is the most melodically satisfying and streamlined tune on Cocoa Sugar, and thematically touches on the abuse and excess of power. It is heartbreaking while uplifting, and its cryptic lyrics can be felt deeper than they can be explained. Singing, “I want to be King until I am, a man is just a man, I understand”, they lament on how we all succumb to the same desires and are faulted by the same temptations of power. A perfect example of their art-form, “In My View” is an enigma with such undeniable deep human feeling that words lack the ability to fully articulate it.
Where “Fee Fi”, “Holy Ghost” and “Wire” act more as the aesthetic glue holding the album’s universe together, Cocoa Sugar’s middle tracks “Lord”, “Wow” and “Tremolo” are the standalone singles that shine brightest. “Lord” has all the musical fixings. It teeters on the line between ethereal and jolting, combining lovely pads with sparse 808 sub-bass and delicate piano with distorted and overtly loud synth blasts held for an extended round of bars. Lyrics are consistent with themes on the album, “Love wants to give, hate wants the thrills, joy hates the pain, but pain, we all need.”
“Tremolo” is calculated and patient, teasing an uplifting mid-section before falling back into a darker side. Cocoa Sugar is darker than the band's previous releases, and this is shown most emphatically through its lyrical content. They don’t nibble around the edges, but dive head first in exploring the dark side of all humans, and “Tremolo” is no exception. “Tremolo” could be best interpreted as their desire to feel the lows in life so that they can better appreciate the highs, and “Wow” follows it up with an odd, yet effective look at our thirst for excess.
The latter half of Cocoa Sugar sees the album finding a more consistent pace and flow. “Border Girl” has a Gorillaz-style feel and “Holy Ghost” gives you a spiritual think-piece with more lyrical metaphors than you can handle. “Picking You” completes the album with a strong vocal performance, high pitch effects, a TV On the Radio vibe and irregular snare rhythms. Encouraging the listener to stay true to themselves and to never fall victim to the leeches of the world, the final words soar, “You’ll never find your way to heaven” as we fade away and out of the Young Fathers dimension.
Maybe Young Fathers started off wanting to create a more accessible album, but in the end, they realized that normal just isn’t their style. Normal is boring, and Cocoa Sugar isn’t. Young Fathers aren't interested in making music that's easy for you to understand and digest. There are brilliant moments of intricate musicianship, and there are moments of that intricate brilliance becoming just too convoluted. It’s going to take you some time to digest everything that’s happening on this record, and as with all abstract art, you'll either get it or you won't.