Stripping back by going deeper
Genre labeling is a bitch. It can confine, pigeonhole, and dictate expectations. Conversely, it can unburden, sabotage, and defy those expectations. It's something writers and critics (this one included) often use as a crutch; a way of condensing the essence of a thing down to a pull quote. These days, Scottish trio Young Fathers are doing everything they can do make give critics migraine-spinning writers block. On paper, their third album, Cocoa Sugar, carries a more "mainstream" and "streamlined" approach when placed up against their 2014 debut Dead and abrasively brilliant 2015 followup, White Men Are Black Men Too. The dub/hip-hop/R & B/ Krautrock tags certainly apply, as does the lyrical obsession with identity and otherness. Still, the group grapple with the polarities of diasporic community by using symbolic language rather than clearly defined ideas. Therefore, if White Men Are Black Men too was an angry rant of lo-fi anxiety about not fitting in, Cocoa Sugar is what happens when fitting in means realizing the world is rotten to the core.
Made up of members born in Liberia, Nigeria, and Edinburgh, Young Fathers use their differing cultural experiences to unify a cohesive message of wokeness. Utilizing rapping, chanting, and soft-sung vocals over wobbly synths, looping piano, and African rhythms, Cocoa Sugar continues the group's avant-pop sensibilities while managing a more straightforward narrative flow. While there are still songs here bordering on the experimental; the jittery "Fee-Fi", Dan Deacon-esque chiptune of "Turn", or the growling chants on the muffled dirge "Wow", Young Fathers turn even more toward the spiritually accessible/cynical. Lead single "In My View", for instance, uses the biblical character of Delilah as a placeholder for losing oneself in "sinful" behavior, while "Holy Ghost", the most overt hip-hop track on the record, gives us the refrain You can tell your deity I’m alright/Wake up from the dead, call me Jesus Christ over a buzzing synth-driven beat. Meanwhile, "Lord" is essentially a deconstructed gospel song; complete with a haunting piano motif and beautifully emotive choir-like chorus. In true Young Fathers fashion, however, the distorted keyboard and reverb-heavy beat take over, resulting in something blown out; sprawling, drowning in sound, and reaching towards epiphany.
Though more a populist effort, Cocoa Sugar is by no means a step backwards for Young Fathers. In many ways, it's the record they have been working toward all along; less abrasive and genre-defying to be sure, but no less idiosyncratic. The lyrical content on display--love, hate, fear, longing, cynicism, spiritual uplift-- are trapped inside layered production and startling vocal harmonies. At its best, the album lulls one into a relaxed state of contemplation only to shake your bones with a line, turn of phrase, or odd sonic embellishment. It is the sound of a group purging themselves of genre labels, expectations, and rules. It is the best kind of political album; using elements of religiosity and transcendence to tap into actual existential and societal fears. To that end, Cocoa Sugar is an internal protest album; one that may have you humming and head-bobbing before slipping into a dark night of the soul.