“You might not be interested in war, but war is interested in you / And all your sexual capers, drug delirium / Fortunes won, lost, or won again,” Kayus Bankol of Young Fathers proclaims on “Fortunes.” He continues, “Double crosses and dangerous liasons / Mainstream negroes that look like Jesus.” This organ-led sermon sits in the middle of their 2011 debut EP, Tape One, its themes and priestly conviction giving a thesis to surrounding meditations, as well as providing a roadmap for albums to come. Tape One has a hesitant optimism running through occasionally dismal observations. 2011 was a different time; things were calmer relative to our current sociopolitical catastrophe. But even today, Young Fathers continue to find hope and beauty in darkness.
In an interview with The Guardian, the group disclaims an overt political stance in relation to their most recent album, Cocoa Sugar, asserting that they merely want to hold a mirror to humanity and bare the good and bad. Looking back on Young Fathers’ preceding work, this seems to have been their intention from the start: to find and share an enlightened outlook, provoke questions rather than answer them, and create a ceremony to unite us around the chaos. They achieve this with the otherworldly gospel of Cocoa Sugar. Underneath bleak musings and calls for revolt, Young Fathers have been steadily building a bible based around the acceptance of oneself and others, societal ills and splendors, and the heaven and hell of existence.
The Edinburgh-based trio have always shared a unique perspective on the world. Alloysious “Ally” Massaquoi and Bankol come from African immigrant families, while Graham “G” Hastings is of Scottish kin. All of them are “outsiders” in some way — Massaquoi and Bankol as immigrant-born individuals, Hastings as the white guy singing about racial tensions. But Young Fathers delight in and disavow their perceived otherness. They appeal to the alien of being, grappling with divisive social constructs, meshing tribal and industrial sounds into dissonant harmony.
DEAD, their 2014 Mercury Prize-winning debut full-length, is an uninhibited rallying cry. It concentrates the ethos of the first two EPs with an experimental, triumphant edge. The ensuing album, White Men Are Black Men Too, positioned itself as a political conversation-starter in title alone. Lyrics tangle discussing the intricacies of race relations, but sometimes get lost in upbeat electronics. Poignancy persists, but their intensity is somewhat restrained and altered for motivational clap-alongs.
It’s ironic, then, that the lead single for Cocoa Sugar was released with the message, “You can’t dance to it.” “Lord” is certainly not a danceable or clappable tune, but it’s a telling introduction to the album. A piano-backed choir welcomes you into Young Fathers’ glorious, haunting rite: “Love wants to give / Hate wants the thrills / Joy hates the pain / But pain, we all need / The pain we need to feel.” Ground-shaking digital bass drones command attention to each conflicting truth. Then the big finish, exultant in its downcast realism: “This is my cross to bear.” Sirening reverberation shouts back, as if Young Fathers are addressing a chorus.
For a gospel record, Cocoa Sugar is surprisingly devoid of preaching. Rather, it sees raw reactions to and interpretations of our environment. Kanye West’s The Life Of Pablo was born out of similar aims. Kanye sought to confront deep-seated complexities via biblical reflection and empowerment, but his introspection didn’t veer far beyond personal musings. Young Fathers find their strength is in using inner battles to resonate externally.
Cocoa Sugar thrives in exposing our inherent contradictions, digging into basic instincts and finding repressed hunger. Love, sex, violence, money, and power work with and against each other throughout the 12-song tracklist, revealed in dueling beliefs and characters. These are the tenets that supply excitement and anguish, health and sickness. They are the pains and pleasures that bond and separate us.
Lust and bloodthirst are indistinguishable on “Fee Fi.” An ominous piano riff punctuates AutoTuned malice, cooed with a wink: “Nice set of knives / Give me a slice / I like your flesh / I know what’s best / You can be my only guest / Dressed in Sunday’s best.” The track fades with a chant, “End of the week we gonna get paid.” This convergence of violence and money lingers and reaches its jarring peak during the outro of “Wire” — “Better get some money / Before I murder somebody.”
Murderous threats aside, the song is more energizing than frightening. Like much of Cocoa Sugar’s bold, texture-rich composition, the recognition of our entrapment is met with stamina and fortitude. Warm sounds and sonic discord inform and build off of one another as personas unveil and layer. Scintillating synth notes and organic tribal drums clash and flow. A stark orchestral note expands into a metallic loop on “See How,” chugging like machinery behind broodings on love and fairness.
Young Fathers’ multifaceted perspective is crystallized with “In My View.” The “greedy bugger,” the despondent aspiring king, and the broken and lovesick are joined under one narrative, connected by their innate selfishness. Sex is used as a tool to usurp strength; they liken the motives to those of “Delilah,” a character from the Hebrew Bible whose name translates to “the faithless one.” Foie Gras, a widely appreciated delicacy, is presented as a self-serving evil, made “even more delicious” by its inhumane origin. In between bouts of greed, the chorus mournfully justifies. A sparkling melody endures while the walls are caving in; imposed systems and primitive instincts collide and dance.
Diverting from White Men Are Black Men Too’s titular color-coded focus, Cocoa Sugar just sees skin. The unifying goal of the former album is fully seen in the latter. Young Fathers strip away labels and expose our sameness, based in animal ancestry, even as they acknowledge the meaningful variations between us: “Don’t you turn my brown eyes blue, I’m not like you.” Tension between predetermined assumptions of identity and the pure self is embodied in overlapping sonic and lyrical dispositions. Shifting voices confuse and confront our understanding of binary gender; Hastings laments, “A man is just a man, I understand,” on “In My View,” while Massaquoi purrs, “You know I’m not the type of girl,” among pulsating beats and screams on “Wire.”
Perhaps the most contradictory presence on the album is that of god. “Holy Ghost” rejects the idea of a god figure and shines a light on the holiness in oneself. “I got the holy ghost fire in me / As in hell, you can call it blasphemy,” Bankole shouts this mantra to crawling electronics. “You can take your deity, I’m alright / Wake up in the bed, call me Jesus Christ.” In a single verse they draw a swift line from theism to nationalism, crossing patriarchal and capitalist ideologies along the way.
The god on “Lord” is more ambiguous. They beg for a sign, but insist that god needn’t “pay [them] no mind.” A sung Scottish proverb substantiates doubt, positing that if wishes came true, everybody would be living out their dreams. While their faith in a higher power is uncertain, their faith in human connection remains, “While the government wants to control / Our country will set you free.” Cocoa Sugar ends with a funeral, a denial of heaven and reinstatement of caution set to an organ and military drumline.
During tumultuous times, artists often force an obligatory political message. But Young Fathers’ only agenda on Cocoa Sugar is to encourage us to see ourselves and one another, and see ourselves in one another. Inward focus and critical observation illustrate a worldview more accurate, complex, and vulnerable than what a grand statement or trendy catchphrase could convey. By taking the politics out of engaging with the world, they’ve gotten down to the root of our issues and their solution: humanity.