‘Cocoa Sugar’ is the highly-anticipated third full-length album from Mercury Prize winning trio Young Fathers, the follow-up from the group’s 2015 effort ‘White Men Are Black Men Too’, an album universally acclaimed as one of the finest of that year for its deft, worldly, eclectic fusion of lo-fi hip hop beats, soul-inspired vocals and pop-sensibility.
Stylistically, this was nothing new from Young Fathers. They’ve been blending genres since their 2011 EP/mini-album/mixtape/thing ‘TAPE ONE’. It did, however, mark a high-point in improvement upon an already tried and tested formula of blending these genres to create a sound and vision which is completely their own.
Erstwhile, Young Fathers’ strongest material has always been muddied by lo-fi production, which can be off-putting for the uninitiated. Their 2014, Mercury Prize winning debut LP ‘Dead’ featured clearer production and a larger sound overall, and while it did come with exposure to a slightly bigger audience; it came at the expense of a lot of the groove and swagger of their early material.
Preceding singles from ‘Cocoa Sugar’, Lord and In My View – already two of the greatest tracks the trio have recorded to date – hinted at an even more ambitious and hi-fi sound than that heard on ‘Dead’, but this time with all of the confidence and comfortability in their aesthetic as heard on ‘White Men…’
Overall, ‘Cocoa Sugar’ is a decent album. True to form, Young Fathers have jettisoned the need for a strong, hit single in favour of a collection of songs that work as a cohesive unit, with particular attention given to the album’s sequencing.
However, that doesn’t take away from some of the songs being in need of some stronger hooks or seeming like stretched out, unfinished ideas. Tremolo, for example, makes clever use of the namesake effect applied to the lead vocal on its chorus playing into the lyrical content about body and soul, but is still one of the album’s weakest and most pedestrian tracks on account of its underdeveloped beat and unexciting synths and vocal layering.
Similarly, the menacing Fee Fi features quirky rapping and dissonant drum and piano voicings but in spite of its left-of-centre rap stylings, it never really takes flight, and Wire, while sonically pleasing; feels out of place. Wow is propelled by an urgent beat, some instrumental left turns, and uncharacteristically monotonous vocals but provides little release from the tension it builds, while See How and Picking You, as the opening and closing tracks on ‘Cocoa Sugar’ respectively, do little to build anticipation or bring a sense of conclusion to the album.
Young Fathers have never been a group to follow the rules of typically structured pop song writing but in their avoidance of a verse-chorus-verse song structure, their music presents them at times as nonchalant or lackadaisical but despite this, there is much to enjoy on ‘Cocoa Sugar’.
Border Girl is hard-hitting, sweeping the listener up with a fractured beat, exquisite vocal layering and perforated synths filling the leftover space; building to a crescendo where Young Fathers have never sounded bigger. Turn is an unorthodox take on balladry; if not sonically then for its lyrical content centred on the conflict of change and having to work for one’s lot (“Money buys you isolation/Give the Pied Piper a raise … You take your chance/But you are not special/Learn your lessons/No such thing as blessings”)
Holy Ghost is a certified banger brag-rap (“I got the Holy Ghost fire in me/Dancing in hell/You could call it blasphemy”) driven by a rolling, ramshackle beat and off-beat synths, tons of vocal interplay and Bibllical, mystical references. Highlight Toy has the album’s most exciting instrumental and the aforementioned In My View captures the group at their most haunting, creating intriguing and vivid imagery around money as an agent of change, sex, love, drugs and lust.
In short, despite its glowing highlights, ‘Cocoa Sugar’ lacks the consistent ambition to be regarded as their paradoxically vibrant, lo-fi records but at the same time sees the group continue to break free the reluctance that shackled their breakout LP, ‘Dead’. The album is cohesive, but safe. There are moments of brilliance, but also moments where the trio seem happy to hide their light under a bush. One would hope that future efforts sees Young Fathers’ reach exceed their grasp.