Saturday, March 28, 2009

Cool Again?: A Review of Guardian Angel by Natural Black

Despite what is on the immediate horizon in terms of Reggae releases there aren’t very many things these days which REALLY get my anticipations up and ready, waiting for a forthcoming release. Almost undoubtedly due to exactly how much material I do listen to, especially these days, I find it quite difficult at time to simply get hyped for pieces and, typically, I reserve that type of normal pre-release anticipation for the feelings that I get, whether good or bad, after I have actually received the project. For example, I can’t actually say that, unlike for his first album, I was all that tuned up for Mavado’s most recent delivery, A Better Tomorrow, not to say that I wasn’t looking forward to it but it wasn’t with the zeal I previously experienced, this in spite of the HUGE amount of press surrounding the release as well as Mavado’s own constant self promotion. the same could be said for one of the other BIG releases from a big artist earlier in 2009, the Rise Up album from Anthony B. this was also somewhat surprising to me as the chanted WOWED me in 2008 with the releases of consistently high material throughout the year which was peaked by his album, Life Over Death, his first release for his very own label. I could even take it a step further and include the man himself, Sizzla Kalonji (more on him in a bit), but I didn’t exactly find myself salivating over the potential of the then forthcoming Addicted album (and luckily I didn’t, because it just wasn’t very good) Of course there are exceptions, however. Incidentally, right now there are two releases on my radar for this forthcoming month of April which REALLY have me frustrated in waiting. The first is actually an album from the just mentioned Sizzla Kalonji, Ghetto Youthology for Greensleeves Records. The catch and the attraction with Ghetto Youthology is the fact that by all appearances it is a straight forward ROOTS Reggae album (anytime that situation arises from a Sizzla album, you’re potentially dealing with MASTERY level type of stuff) AND it’s produced by none other than his own band, Firehouse, which to my ears is every bit as inviting as if it were produced by former ‘boss’ Philip ‘Fattis’ Burrell himself of Xterminator (which would technically make it the first such album since 2004’s underrated Stay Focus album. Like his last Greensleeves album, I-Space, Ghetto Youthology has WICKED written all over it. The same could be said for Buju Banton’s FINALLY releasing of his Rasta Got Soul album which has been rumoured to be coming since roughly the turn of the century and is expected to be the literal follow-up to his opus, the CLASSIC Til Shiloh album. That being said, however, there are dozens of albums on the ‘soon come’ which simply don’t do very much for me, at all.

But are there any ARTISTS who I consistently look forward to? Well, with someone like Sizzla, my favourite, I do confess that my level of anticipation varies depending on what type of input I receive about the album before it’s release. However, there are two cases of two HIGHLY CONSISTENT artists with whom that is never a question. The first is DEFINITELY the great Lutan Fyah who has ignited my confidences in modern Roots in much the same way Sizzla did almost a decade ago. The second artist (speaking in a strictly roots capacity here, in Dancehall, I would probably say Beres Hammond, Assassin and DEFINITELY Tanya Stephens) is arguably even more consistent (very arguably) and almost unarguably more ENTERTAINING than even Lutan Fyah, the simply outstanding Natural Black. I would say that an honour I had previously believed would someday belong to the once promising, now ‘slumming’, Turbulence FULLY belongs to Natural Black: More so than any other relatively young or ‘new’ Roots Reggae artist to emerge in the last half decade or so at the top flight of the game, it has been an UTTER JOY to watch and listen to the Guyanese born chanter develop. Once, simply regarded as a HYPE Buju Banton clone (complete with the Beres Hammond connection and all) Natural Black, over the years has definitely come into his own as an artist, to the point where he is now regarded as undoubtedly one of the most well regarded local and international Reggae talents in the world, despite never really ‘threatening’ to crossover into the mainstream arenas at all. I ALWAYS look forward to each and every time Black releases an album as it is, typically, not only always full of appreciably SOLID material (and is, at times, even spectacular) but his style is one which, even when not at his best, can make a song worthwhile giving it SOME quality worth listening to. Thus, it was by a very comfortable surprise (if such a thing exists) that I received the new album from Natural Black, Guardian Angel, by my count, his eighth studio album to date. The circumstances surrounding this one are a bit unusual, but also (VERY) familiar. Unusual because releasing the album is a Bajan record label (which I have NEVER heard of before), Zion Roots Music (which is an offshoot of CRS Music, which I have heard of before, they released Kimberly Inniss’ debut, Come With Me, if I recall correctly). Barbados is Soca country but apparently they have a somewhat up and coming Reggae scene as well and ZRM is apparently at the forefront of that movement now. The more familiar (and significant) aspect to Guardian Angel, however, is that it is somewhat figuratively the follow-up to 2007’s solid Cool Nuh Black album as it is the second album which the chanter recorded for his native Guyana. Cool Nuh Black, if I recall correctly was a Guyanese production (meaning that’s where it was mixed) but it was largely recorded in Jamaica (for his lead producer/manager (I THINK, although Black has his own label now, Shagillia) Walter Fraser‘s Vizion Sounds label). Guardian Angel, however, was recorded at Brutal Tracks studio and is produced by what is apparently one of the finest backing bands in Guyana, the Brutal Jammers. The results here are typically REFRESHING and SOLID Natural Black, definitely not to be missed.

Although most of the Reggae listening world will know this album as Guardian Angel, it was actually released back in 2008 officially, in Guyana and several spots throughout the Caribbean, as Wise Decision. Zion Roots Music picked it up and threw together a new (and wholly more appreciable) cover and Guardian Angel was born. Several of the tunes were actually, unbeknownst to me beforehand, going in. Going in to Natural Black’s Guardian Angel, the first stop you’ll come to will be The Prayer, which turns out to be one of the stronger tunes on the album altogether. The tune is (DUH) a praising tune for His Majesty and a SWEET one, the one drop backing this one sounds almost ANGRY. I couldn’t tell you at all the name of the riddim, but I would definitely love to hear others voice it as well. Big opening there. The pace definitely kicks up a notch or two as Natural Black delivers the title track for Guardian Angel which is my choice as it’s greatest tune altogether. Black’s REAL talent is his ability to PERSONALIZE a track better than almost anyone in the game, which, although his subject matter my not be the most varied (not saying it isn’t), he is one of very few artists who can say that NO ONE else besides him can capture his vibes, he is truly one of a kind, That skill is ever-present throughout Guardian Angel the tune as Natural Black brings the VERY strong tune which would have been a real standout on any of his previous albums well. HUGE tune. Completing the opening of the album is a tune which took quite a few spins to grow on me full on, the NICE Calling On Him. This one has a very stereotypical sound to it (which is probably why I overlooked it) but Black’s usual special blends of herbs and spices really pushes the levels up on the tune as he reminds all of us to look to His Majesty in times good and bad. Indeed. Very strong opening.

Although you’ll find the first few tracks of Guardian Angel to be of a highly spiritual nature and sound, the tides turn to bit more uptempo and less conscious material which is the things I had heard before. Thankfully the change isn’t an immediate one, however, as we are afforded the WICKED Buss New Riddim which may just be the best WRITTEN tune on the album as Natural Black uses the music as a metaphor as a life change as he says, “Buss new riddim. Buss new songs, after reading a psalm!”. Not the scathing piece the title might suggest, that’s saved for what was I THINK the album’s single, We Don’t Play. This is a fairly straight forward and DARK Dancehall tune, although it does have conscious lines here and there dashed in. Its not a HORRIBLE tune although it certainly isn’t amongst my favourites here and apparently it did some quite healthy business down in GT. The other similarly vibed tune is What You Looking For which features Black alongside Guyanese artist Jory Hector (who I’ve actually seen perform before I believe). This one is a just BIT better than We Don’t Play and, of course, I always like to see new talents getting the exposure and I’ll even say that there could have been even more exposing some MORE GT talents (what I want is a Reggae meets Soca combination Natural Black/Adrian Dutchin!). While the hype definitely goes down when the hype tunes do, the QUALITY amps back in when Black goes after the slower and heavier vibed material. Such a tune is the very strong Open Your Eyes, a tune urging the masses to take a stronger look for the more hidden forms of corruption around them. Very cleverly written song there, definitely give it a few spins through (“Open your eyes people, dem a practice DAYLIGHT EVIL!”). Arguably even stronger, however, than Open Your Eyes is the tune Life’s Journey which is definitely one of my favourites on Guardian Angel. This song is on a more intense (musically speaking) vibes than most other Roots intensive pieces on the album and really develops over the course of its duration from its somewhat ‘jumbled’ beginnings. Heads Of Government is another strong effort from Natural Black as Guardian Angel winds down. This one definitely carries a much more tangible message, speaking to our ‘leaders’ who have let the quality of life degenerate with now response virtually. The tune approaches the ‘art form’ or critiquing from a very tangible and DIRECT line which is, oddly enough, quite unusual and very refreshing for such a tune (by simply not blaming heads of government because “times getting red” or something like such). The ROCKING Careless Ethiopian is simply one of the best tunes you’ll find on Guardian Angel, period. This is a roots tune which stays within those borders quite easily, but at the same time allows Natural Black to do a few different things with the vibes. His primary delivery for the majority of the tune is basically just a TALKING style. The tune itself is just a reminder for us to stay on our toes and remain aware at all times while living in the corrupt system and I swear that chorus just grows and grows on you. Probably the best on the album altogether. The tune Music wasn’t what I expected at all. I had in my mind a FAR more jovial type of tune (almost the ‘changeup’ of the album), but it still ended up conveying the type of message which I hoped it may. It’s just an ode to the music itself, to the vibes, but it has much more than just that to it. As usual (at least this is what I get here), Black uses ‘the music’ as a metaphor for a whole heap of things, of course, most notably as LOVE, while simultaneously standing for the actual music itself. Perhaps he was trying to put across that music = love? Indeed Natural Black. Closing shop on Natural Black’s Guardian Angel album is the aforementioned changeup, the obligatory Nyahbinghi tune, Count Your Blessings. I always love these tunes and Count Your Blessings is no different, another very ADDICTIVE chorus on this one and Black actually shows off a bit of singing here and there as well. Just with the overall message of being THANKFUL for what you have comes in with the tune and to set up things nicely for those to come after you. Trying to somewhat make it all fit in my mind isn’t very simple in terms of the grand plot of the album itself, however, I’d still venture to say that while there are stronger tunes, none of them would be better to end the album than Count Your Blessings.

Overall, as odd as this may sound (and it will), while Natural Black DEFINITELY has had stronger albums than Guardian Angel (Far From Reality, Love Conquer Evil, Naturally Black), just as I said of the Cool Nuh Black, Guardian Angel, in the grand scheme of things, may just be his most important. You’re already starting to see Natural Black’s effect on the Guyanese Reggae scene with more and more artists reaching out with material (like Jory Hector) and I think that this album could have even done more (like a First Born combination, how does that not happen!???) . You’re also actually seeing a bit of backlash from Guyanese Reggae fans who feel Black isn’t representing Guyana so strong and I feel albums like this definitely do that in a tangible way, it shows him actually investing more in the culture. It also just happens to be one of my favourite artists dropping yet another COMPLETE and CONSISTENT set. Guardian Angel is recommended to most fans of modern Roots, probably with a Dancehall twist and of course fans of Natural Black, one of the most talented artist in the game. Well done and well worth the (short) wait.
Rated 4/5 stars
Zion Roots Music

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