Scottish-based, Mercury-Prize-winning group Young Fathers have been ones to ignore the confines of genre since their critically acclaimed 2014 debut Dead. The following year, they upped the ante with genre defiance while throwing in more abrasive touches that expanded their sound even further. Their first output since 2015, Cocoa Sugar is yet again an expansion of their incredible musical palette.
Founded by Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and 'G' Hastings in 2008 while all three members were still teens, Young Fathers have long embraced their creativity in ways that defy genre norms. Coming from an array of backgrounds — Massaquoi from Liberia; Bankole raised in Maryland and Nigeria; Hastings born and raised in Scotland — Young Fathers’ experiences with identity and expression are of the utmost importance.
Laced with religious motifs, chilling introspection and abrasive confrontation of all that’s wrong internally and externally, Cocoa Sugar is a soundtrack for a world that seems to be struggling with defining what’s right and wrong. On “In My View” — one of the record’s singles — the lyrics ring out sentiments of perseverance: “In my view, nothing’s ever given away/ I believe to advance then you must pay/ In my view, love will never come my way/ So, when I leave, you’ll be dancing on my grave.”
Experimentation with classic vocals simultaneously highlights the originality of Young Fathers’ music, all while keeping these abstractions grounded in their altered humanity. Pitch shifting lays the foundation on “Turn.” Echoed tribal chants scatter throughout the background on “Wire.” Hollering is mixed with the production on “Holy Ghost” as if it were an instrument of its own.
As a compliment to the shifting vocal styles, the production throughout Cocoa Sugar — in classic Young Fathers style — refuses to stay constrained by a single classification. Hip-hop, pop, dance, R&B and alternative instrumentation all have a home in the group’s latest, sometimes melding with one another to create something brand new. While the songs are undeniably in a world of their own, they never stray too far from accessibility.
In fact, this may be Young Fathers’ most accessible album yet, but the mystery behind the group remains. Cryptic metaphors and symbolism continue to be essential to their storytelling. Though not scattered to the degree of the ideas on White Men Are Black Men Too, Cocoa Sugar’s lessons have to be earned by repeat listens to decipher their exact meanings. On “Holy Ghost,” the lyrics, “Salty pillar, philosophic polyfilla/ Deserted in the desert, turning sand into a mirror/ Fables and cables, turning tablets into tables/ I’m outchea, empty cradle in the stable,” continue the thread of religious references, but to what extent is still enigmatic.
With 12 songs clocking in at a total time of 37 minutes, Cocoa Sugar is a breeze to listen to, every song wonderfully placed. Its brevity is one of its strongest traits, as the group shares their soundscape just long enough to make you beg for more. Song after song, Young Fathers prove that they are in a lane all their own. Their vision, while cryptic at times, is one of the most promising in music right now, and Cocoa Sugar is a near-perfect execution of their genre-melding, mind-boggling and awe-inspiring music.
Final Grade: A