Edinburgh trio Young Fathers have always existed left-of-centre but only a couple of steps shy of the mainstream. A 2014 Mercury Prize win for decidedly strange, scrappy soul debut ‘Dead’ didn’t catapult them towards all-out stardom. Nor did a spot on Danny Boyle’s 2017 T2 Trainspotting soundtrack, or the more chiselled and streamlined 2015 LP ‘White Men Are Black Men Too’. But the message around third album ‘Cocoa Sugar’ is that it’s a more linear version of the beat-driven, homemade pop they’ve been doing for half a decade; a final shift to more familiar, crowd-pleasing territory.
The reality is that Young Fathers couldn’t sound straightforward and by-the-numbers if their career depended on it. Every bit of their output – spanning back to early mixtapes ‘Tape One’ and ‘Tape Two’ – shares the same spirit: music that’s in-your-face, rough around the edges and uncompromising. They’ve always made bracing pop built from scrapheap parts, and ‘Cocoa Sugar’ is no different. All three members alternate between raps, chants and honeyed vocals, often shouting over each other like they’re scuffling over the same microphone. African rhythms – spanning from Alloysious Massaquoi’s Liberia-via-Ghana upbringing, and the Nigerian roots of Kayus Bankole – are set against wobbling synths, Graham ‘G’ Hastings’ toy-shop percussion and looped piano notes. It’s a signature sound entirely belonging to them, so why mess with a proven formula?
If they’ve streamlined anything, however, it’s their ability to express fire and rage against the powers that be. Young Fathers have always had a cause to rally against (they once banned The Sun and The Daily Mail from red-carpet interviews because of their discriminatory views) and ‘Cocoa Sugar’ began being pieced together in the wake of 2016’s Trump victory, so there’s plenty of ammo for their frustration. But instead of coming off preachy, the trio’s politics is expressed by looking at the bigger picture. ‘In My View’ is a power-hungry standout – the sound of royals lording it up, consuming “fine wine and foie gras” with no concern for the common man. ‘Wow’ is a dread-ridden critique of class and consumer culture, and ‘Border Girl’ is a more subtle take on modern woes than its title might suggest. In that sense, ‘Cocoa Sugar’ is like an angst-ridden teenager finally realising why they’re so angry.
But frankly, Young Fathers shouldn’t need to simmer down or spoon-feed what they do to gain popularity or make a better living. They’ve made it this far by being unlike any other band in the country, equally motivated by writing great pop songs and sounding completely alien. ‘Cocoa Sugar’ isn’t a filtered version of what came before. Instead, it cements their status as riled-up oddballs determined to reinvent the wheel.