Edinburgh Hip Hop trio Young Fathers have returned with their third album proper, Cocoa Sugar.
I first came across Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and ‘G’ Hastings, all named after their dads apparently, when they supported Paul Weller on his 2015 arena tour. Already hot properties (although far from universally popular among Weller fans, it must be said), since then their formative first pair of EPs, imaginatively titled Tape 1 and Tape 2, have been re-issued to capitalise on an increased audience and several tracks, including new number Only God Knows (recorded with the Leith Congregational Choir) were included as the basis of the score of Danny Boyle’s acclaimed T2: Trainspotting.
Kathryn Bromwich got their reception so far spot on earlier this year in The Guardian when she described them as “a critical success if not a mainstream one”.
And the group’s confrontational yet melancholic words and eerie soundscapes which got them that far continue if anything more potently on their latest album.
In My View, which has been one of the LP’s most popular tracks among fans so far may have surpassed Get Up, taken from the 2014 Mercury Prize winning Dead, as their most catchy, accessible tune. In many ways it is signature Young Fathers, featuring mournful vocals with a message, wailing synths and meaty percussion.
The gospel influences from the previous record, 2015’s Berlin-recorded White Men Are Black Men Too, also haven’t been lost, exemplified by another highlight Tremolo, featuring perhaps the most catchy chorus after In My View.
Potent political messages are another theme continued from WMABMT. For all the vague existentialism of In My View, first single Lord is more cutting when you actually listen, despite the woozy backing and haunting piano refrain.
Led musically by Hastings, the band have made hazy soundscapes and fuzzy, buzzing synth bursts which at the same time contribute to the rocky, imperfect feel while also showing off the beautiful vocals, their most listenable yet.
Wow is a nice workout for Hastings’ synths and shows off the group’s layered vocals in an album which features a lot more singing than rapping. Sadly, the boys miss an opportunity here as Wow doesn’t really offer much to think about beyond that, though thankfully it is the exception which proves the rule.
Young Fathers were selected by M.I.A. when she curated the Meltdown Festival last year. While it would be lazy to labour this link too much, the potent pair of Border Girl and Holy Ghost both discuss division and belonging combatively, themes which have become much more prominent in the Hounslow rapper’s more recent writing.
These are the two most interesting lyrical songs on the record, and also come with interesting backings too, from the former’s piercing marching beat, choral vocals and minimalist synth buzz to the low-key, spacey electro belches which introduce the rushed, frantic drum programming of the latter.
You can’t completely review an album like this after a week and a half of listening. As WMABMT showed us, you don’t get into Young Fathers’ offering on the first listen, and once you do it is much more about making you think than serving up a set of convenient three-minute self-contained packages.
Despite a slew of positive reviews, with Q, The Guardian and the NME (.com) among others falling over themselves to offer praise I feel a little uncomfortable giving Cocoa Sugar an overall rating or neat summation when their songs take time to really appreciate and compute – their success is more down to the listener’s reaction than the sheet music and words.
Indeed, this is their first CD album which comes with a lyric book and some of the transcriptions look frankly ridiculous when meticulously copied out, repetition and all.
But Cocoa Sugar marks a clear progression in Young Fathers’ tour de force. Although delivered better than we’ve heard before, at times the words can still be like daggers, and they also make the rare rap interludes that much more powerful. The conflicted ideas about religion on Border Girl and Picking You open another avenue of introspection too.
It’s been said that the group tried to follow more conventional songwriting techniques to make Cocoa Sugar easier to digest. They’ve managed to do this without sacrificing an inch of their carefully balanced, simple-yet-full sound. Cocoa Sugar is no change of style and won’t gain Young Fathers the hours of airplay or legions of new fans they deserve, but it won’t alienate any existing ones either.
And if they can continue chipping away at the public’s consciousness like this, it’s only a matter of time before the album sales match the critical praise and Young Fathers get their uniquely presented social missives to far more people.
Cocoa Sugar is out now on Ninja Tune.
Young Fathers begin a mostly sold-out five-date UK tour in Birmingham tonight before moving on to London’s Roundhouse tomorrow. The trio head to Europe in April and the US in May before numerous festival appearances this summer including All Points East, Electric Fields, The Liverpool International Music Festival and Moscow’s Park Live. For dates see their website.