“We are pretenders, making the headlines,” Young Fathers chanted on 2011’s Tape One, their debut EP. Three years later their album Dead did indeed make headlines as surprise winner of the 2014 Mercury Prize. A powerful follow-up came a year later, White Men Are Black Men Too, and with it a burgeoning reputation as one the best live acts on the circuit.
The Edinburgh trio — Kayus Bankole, Graham Hastings, Alloysious Massaquoi — are masters of tension and release. Their songs are driven and confrontational, like the gimlet stares with which they fix audiences from the stage. Yet there is uplift too, registered through communal chants and a stubborn hopefulness. Their music draws on numerous influences — rap, art-rock, electronic music — but punk and gospel are the twin conceptual poles around which it is oriented.
Cocoa Sugar continues the musical oppositions. The title is named after two sweet treats with an ignoble history in the slave trade. Two of the band have African connections: Massaquoi moved to Scotland from Liberia as a child while Bankole has Nigerian parents.
“Tied to the country but we’re all from the motherland,” goes a line from “Holy Ghost”, a song about migration in which a dislocated melody rubs against a taut beat and optimistic choruses. “Fee Fi” is dense affair with an introspective piano melody, African percussion and a medley of different vocal styles, from psychedelic rap to soft crooning.
Cocoa Sugar is not meant to slip down easily. Its world view is opaque and dissonant; money recurs as an image, both as means of transformation and agent of corruption. Yet the threesome devise a sure path through the challenging terrain. “You’ll never find your way to heaven, but you can follow me,” is the album’s concluding message, sung in a gospel refrain: hope springs eternal.
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