The Young Fathers create a unique and noteworthy sound with ‘Cocoa Sugar’

March 16, 2018

Describing Young Fathers’ genre is almost as impossible as discerning a clear, absolute message in their lyrics. They are a band defined by contradictions and a web of conflicts—both culturally and artistically—that grind against each other to create some of the most fascinating experimental pop and hip-hop music of the last decade. This multifaceted conflict is one of the few constants across Young Fathers’ small discography, and the band’s latest effort, “Cocoa Sugar,” is no exception to the pattern. With 36 minutes of the tightest and most provocative pop music of the year so far, “Cocoa Sugar” is a deceptively simple album that worms its way into your brain and keeps you digging for more just when you thought you had it all figured out.

Young Fathers are a Scottish band formed in 2008, although they didn’t release their debut album, “DEAD,” until 2014. The band’s three members—Alloysius Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole, and Graham “G” Hastings—are Liberian, Nigerian and Scottish, respectively, but their cultural identities run much deeper than a single label. Massaquoi moved to Scotland from Liberia at age 4; Bankole was born in Edinburgh, and then lived in Nigeria and Maryland before moving back to Scotland as a teenager; and Hastings was born and raised in Edinburgh.

The trio met in high school, when they started making dance music wholly unlike the nuanced experimental and lo-fi hip-hop they produced on 2014’s “DEAD” and its 2015 follow-up, “White Men Are Black Men Too.” The members’ complex identities heavily influence their challenging and varying vocal and instrumental styles, favoring a confluence of countless styles and recording techniques over conventional genres. Nowhere is this more evident than on “Cocoa Sugar,” which features the largest variety of musical styles in a Young Fathers album to date.

The record kicks off with the plaintive “See How,” which deftly sets the tone for the rest of the album. The song unfolds gracefully over its two-minute runtime, beginning as a lonely voice that is soon accompanied by squelching horns, soft keyboards and quietly mixed chanting before breaking out into gospel choir vocals. The song’s atmosphere and lyrics are at once longing for a different life while also toying with the idea of trying something completely new, a tug-of-war of one’s identity that lies at the heart of “Cocoa Sugar.” Although every song on the album sounds extremely distinct, “See How” still lays out the conflicting lyrical and instrumental themes that tie the tracks together into a brilliant whole.

One of the most prominent instrumental themes on the album is Young Fathers’ characteristic marriage of lo-fi and hi-fi elements, which is particularly prominent on “Fee Fi” and “Tremolo.” These tracks root themselves in crackly lo-fi percussion and bass over which rich and emotive vocals are alternately sung and rapped. This contrast of a tinny and simplistic rhythm section against clean vocals and keyboards was similarly utilized on “White Men,” but these songs take the concept a step further by incorporating beautiful group vocal harmonies while stripping down the rhythms even further than on that album. This is especially evident on “Tremolo,” which features a hauntingly shimmering hook combined with softly chanted vocals and a half-whispered rap against a backdrop of delicate drum machine rhythms. On the surface, “Tremolo” seems to be one of the most simplistic tracks on the album, but a closer examination of the many layers in the production reveals that the band never fails to pack subtle details at every possible junction in the album’s slim runtime.

While the instrumentation on “Cocoa Sugar” is highly inventive and intricate, the vocals are the album’s real breathtaker. On every track, Massaquoi and Bankole employ different vocal styles, by turns tenderly soft and gruffly yelling, rapping with loose flows or singing like choirboys, or even somehow incorporating doo-wop vocals at the end of the synthpunk song “Wow”—whatever the track calls for. This vocal elasticity extends to vocal filter manipulation to create the unsettlingly shrill screams on “Turn” or the sinister quips on “Wire.” What stands out the most in all of these songs, however, is the unabated rawness and energy that Massaquoi and Bankole bring to every performance. Whether quiet or growling or wildly yelping, all of their vocals are infused with an intensity that drives the tracks forward and imbues them with an urgency that makes each one feel vital to the album’s development.

Truly, I could continue raving about this album for another 800 words or more. With each listen, I pick up on some lyric or buried production detail or snatch of melody that I had never noticed before. Frankly, it’s exciting to be unpacking such a dense and confusing album. “Cocoa Sugar” is a record that aims to start an active dialogue with the listener, one that continues beyond the first 36 minutes and extends into every subsequent excursion into the nooks and crannies of these tracks. It’s not just an album that wants you to enjoy it (although it’s sweet and accessible enough for that). It’s an album that wants you to listen closely and intimately engage with the material as with a book or film. Immaculately detailed and stripped to the essentials without losing sight of a sweet pop hook’s greatness, Young Fathers have crafted one of the best albums of the year so far and one that I certainly won’t be putting down anytime soon.

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