Young Fathers – Cocoa Sugar

For rapidly approaching a decade now, Young Fathers have been one of the most fascinating ‘alternative’ acts in the UK Rap scene, if one even manages to register them as members more than distant cousins. A trio based out of Edinburgh, known for their ramshackle production and tight harmonizing, they’ve earned recognition from the likes of Massive Attack and Tricky and even earned themselves the prestigious Mercury Prize for their debut album Dead. Yet at the same time, they’ve never quite managed to become a more popular act in the greater UK Music Scene, perhaps far too esoteric or insular to fit among the majority of the scene. With their newest album, Cocoa Sugar, one can still understand why that commercial ‘blossoming’ has never occurred and yet the group itself seems incapable of being bothered with their own curious vision of music.

Cocoa Sugar, the third official album from the group (fifth full-length project if you include their pre-debut mixtapes) is without a doubt a Young Fathers album. Their production shies away from the crispness of modernity and instead manages a weird lo-fi kitchen sink feel of driving rhythms, reminding of early 21st century alternative artists such as M.I.A or Mike Skinner but additionally of more experimental pre-hip-hop acts such as Einsturzende Neubauten or Suicide. Its a sound that sounds unique to themselves and in itself avoids the pitfalls of UK Hip-Hop tending to mimic more American-esque trends but also has a sort of corroded and shambolic feel that doesn’t suit being compared to more sonically commercial acts. Imagining the atonal orchestral stabs of album opener “See How” or the scrapyard-Timbaland feel of “Border Girl” on radio next to Stefflon Don or the like has all the familiarity of imagining chatting at the bus stop with a man claiming to be sent from Mars.

That isn’t to say Young Fathers, for all their experimental chaos, are not without their sweetness; the soulful vocals that have earned them so many fans and praise are still there in tact. As much as records such as “In My View” rely on sea-sick synths and chunky thudding percussion, the lullaby-like sweetness of their singing and prayer-like chanting displays a sense of dynamic that so many ‘experimental’ acts just always manage to come up short on. When tracks such as “Turn” finally land their groove and start to unwind, they manage to become altogether frightening and hypnotizing as wild shouting and distorted freakish noises spiral out while surprisingly strong choruses continue to anchor the listener through all the din. Its as if the group have truly perfected and mastered its particular formula to know how to shake the attentions of listeners, challenging their attentions and expectations while still remaining enticing and almost familiar without repeating themselves in ways that could demonstrate a lack of creativity.

At the same time, there are certain elements that hint that Young Fathers have taken a particular step to try and acknowledge the greater sort of community that they are a part of without ever quite ‘belonging’ to. A song like “Wire” starts off with the vaguest toybox echoes of early Dizzee Rascal productions slowly reassembled into a early 90s rave tune, with mantras hissed ominously through distortion, whereas “Holy Ghost” feels like if Kanye West stationed himself and his current career trajectory in London for a spell instead of Wyoming. Even tunes such as the aforementioned “In My View” feel like the artier, more eccentric cousins of what artists such as NSG or Lotto Boyz are accomplishing in the more traditional fields. For as much jargon about how ‘progressive’ and ‘eclectic’ they are, Young Fathers truly don’t feel that improbable for any listener to appreciate. While perhaps Cocoa Sugar isn’t their most ‘commercial’ album, its one of their strongest yet in an already fascinating overall career.

In the greater sphere of said catalog, Cocoa Sugar is a great way to jump into Young Fathers even if after all the hype and releases ones never quite known the right way to approach the group. The record has a more solid flow and more solid edges than preceding albums but without the uneven dis-focus of the early mixtapes that initially garnered listeners attention. Its an album that shows a unique voice in the UK music scene that might not fit into easy categorization, but can still offer something for people of all different walks and perspectives in order to bridge so many sounds. To know that this late into their career Young Fathers are so confident in knowing what works for them, is an optimistic note that in the future maybe more groups will have, maybe not their particular styles and signature sounds, but that same restlessness and sense of exploration to help make the scene as wide-ranging and fascinating as possible.

Written by /
Published /
March 27
Category /
Album Review