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Review: Young Fathers ‘Cocoa Sugar’

Emmanuel Omodeinde

Emmanuel is a 21-year-old English Literature and Film student who loves films, TV, books and pop culture. He is particularly interested in postcolonial literature.

The genre-bending Scottish band deliver their best album yet.

Young Fathers are impossible to categorise. They are a pop group. An indie band. A punk band. An alternative band. A hip-hop group. They are African. They are Scottish. They are accessible. They are experimental. Young Fathers are truly one of the most unique bands to come from the UK in a while and one of the most exciting bands right now in music, period.

Young Fathers were formed in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2008 by Alloysious Massaquoi (of Liberian descent), Kayus Bankole (of Nigerian descent) and Graham ‘G’ Hastings. They released a pair of mixtapes Tape One and Tape Two, more rooted in alternative hip-hop than anything they have done since, but also with elements of punk and reggae. I first discovered them in 2015 after their second album, White Men Are Black Men Too, had just been released. The provocative title caught my eye and I listened to it once or twice, enjoying it but not being blown away. I proceeded to listen to their 2014 Mercury Prize-winning debut album Dead which I really enjoyed as well but again did not return to often. In January 2017 I returned to their discography and completely fell in love with their music. With the release of Cocoa Sugar, they have become one of my new favourite bands.

I became reacquainted with Young Fathers at the perfect time. It had been two years since they released their second album and whilst I wish I had more time to spend with their music, at least the wait for new music was brief. They only released one single in 2017 ‘Only God Knows’ for the T2: Trainspotting’s soundtrack, but I anticipated some great new music and how glad I was to be right.

The first single from this album “Lord” absolutely captivated me and in the context of the album sounds even more amazing. In the middle of the track list, it begins with the sound of heavy vibration before it transitions into a mellow piano chord and vocals singing “Lord, don’t pay me no mind / Lord, if you choose a time / Lord, don’t pay me no mind.” The gospel-influenced lyrics did not surprise me as ‘Only God Knows’ similarly had gospel-influenced lyrics. The track perfectly captures the beauty of Young Fathers. It is both incredibly moving and powerful yet simultaneously unsettling and dark. The synths and reverbs reinforce their choirboy vocals and the combination of gospel lyrics and electronic production is just one of the things that make the band so unique. It is completely overwhelming.

Cocoa Sugar is an album full of experimentation much like their previous albums, but some of the elements which were enhanced before are stripped back, simplified and minimalised. It is still by no means a completely accessible album. There is no mainstream chart-topping pop hit, but songs like the opener ‘See How’ and ‘In My View’ show they’re capable of simplifying their sound without sacrificing their uniqueness. ‘See How’ at only two minutes long, is a beautiful introduction to the album. The production is full of strange sounding synths but the vocals are very sweet and poignant; the repeated lines “see how it goes” give the song an uplifting tempo. The album delves deeper into the weird with ‘Fee Fi’. The percussion and the vocal chanting give it a tribal sound. While it is difficult to parse the meaning of a lot of Young Father’s lyrics they are undeniably beautifully written. The standout track on the album, however, is the infectious earworm ‘In My View’. Perhaps the most straight-forward and accessible song they are ever written with the potential to be a minor indie hit, however, it still carries their signature idiosyncrasies. The production still has a slightly haunting feel to it, there is a drone in the background but the vocals are incredibly pleasant. The hook is also very catchy “In my view, nothing’s ever given away / I believe to advance that you must pay”, their boyish vocals are so charming I could easily imagine them in a doo-wop group or as choir boys in a gospel choir.

There’s so much soul and passion in their vocals and the way they sing. Throughout all of Young Father’s albums, their passionate vocals and beautifully written lyrics remain their strength. The inventiveness and innovative production only enhance the strength of their vocals. While their singing is not pitch-perfect, there’s a desperation and an earnestness to their singing that captivates you. ‘Turn’ begins with the line “I’ve always been this way / All my days” while this is not so abstract like a lot of their lyrics, it is open to interpretation. On ‘Tremolo’ the repeated refrain “tremolo my soul” is sung with so much emotion that you cannot help but be moved. Another reason Young Fathers are such a unique group is how well all three members sing and harmonise together. ‘Wow’ has a pulsating rhythm, heavy percussion and synths, and the track builds up with so much momentum as vocals repeat “giving me what I need.” On ‘Border Girl’, the production and the additional background vocals give it a Demon Days-era Gorillaz vibe. It is also the most political track on the album without being explicitly so, its title and the lyrics referring to the wave of xenophobia and anti-immigration sentiments around the world.

Another highlight on the album is ‘Holy Ghost.’ Like ‘Lord’, its title suggests a religious theme but the vocals sound totally different to that track. Full of unique vocal experimentation, the singing is raspy and desperate with some rapping to add to the energy. The lines “I got the Holy Ghost fire in me / As in hell, you can call it blasphemy” are also loaded with so much meaning, however you may interpret them. ‘Wire’ is a very brief post-punk influenced track, frenetic and impactful in its brief length. ‘Toy’ is another high energy track backed by an upbeat high tempo, clapping, unique vocal inflexions and more rapping. The album closes out by returning to a slightly more accessible sound. An organ chord and rattling drum rolls back the infectiously sweet and earnest vocals as they sing “I’m picking you and you’ / Cause that’s all that seems to matter to me lately.” It is as romantic as they have ever been.

On Cocoa Sugar, Young Fathers prove they are one of the most exciting bands today. They have simplified their sound without sacrificing what makes them unique, showing their ability to transcend genres and make powerful music which is subtly political.

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