Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Got More Than Just Soul: A Review of Rasta Got Soul by Buju Banton

Buju Banton is one of a very select group of Reggae artists who has the ability to appeal to such a wide range of people and do so on both the international and local levels. Throughout his career, whether dominated by Dancehall, dominated by Roots Reggae or dominated by scandal and controversy, Buju has managed to retain a seemingly unerring and indomitable appeal which is, perhaps, unmatched by any living Reggae artist today. Not even the slightly more well known artists, for the most part, can claim such a standing as Buju. For example, Sean Paul’s next album when it arrives some time later this year is almost certain to be a BIG seller, doing over a million units pushed and going platinum worldwide in the process. Sean Paul, as much as the hardcore Dancehall heads may hate to admit it, has, in his time in the international spotlight done SO much for Dancehall and Jamaican music which is evident, if by nothing else (and there is so much more ‘else’), how many times you’ll hear Dancehall Artist ‘A’ utter the phrase, “Mi waan tek it to di place where Sean Paul reach”. However, that being said, back in Jamaica were you to hold a show in Sean Paul’s own yard with only two performers, himself and Buju, Sean Paul would have to play the opener and Buju would close the show. You could even take a more difficult case, in that of Beenie Man who has definitely headlined quite a few bills on which Buju Banton has appeared and done so locally and foreign and that’s to his very own credit as, at least in my humble estimation, the Dancehall, in and of itself, has NEVER seen a more talented practitioner than The Doctor. That being said, the ‘average’ Beenie Man fan and the ‘average’ Buju fan, specifically in the local setting (although it may apply to the longer listening fans internationally as well) could not be more different: Buju Banton strikes feelings in a slightly older and mature crowd for the most part, having LONG abandoned the slack and violent world of the Dancehall as his ONLY method of making his music, Buju simply UPS the senses of his fans and the type of individual who REALLY knows about the artist is one who is able to appreciate the Dancehall and the Roots Reggae arenas equally and often simultaneously (such as your‘s truly). Buju Banton’s music, mired in controversy and all, simply DEMANDS MORE from his fans, making him, in my opinion, one of the very few TRUE full Reggae artists today.

Now. Buju’s standing being what it is might just explain why he may have pulled his recent ‘detour’ feeling calmly and confidently that he would achieve on both fronts. The first leg of said venture occurred back in 2006 when the Kingston native released the WONDERFULLY SURPRISING album Too Bad which was his first pure Dancehall venture in nearly a decade and a half. Too Bad was critically acclaimed and, by all accounts, commercially successful but it really wasn’t the original design. The album which so many (including myself) had called Buju’s own personal slap at the tons and tons of critics who had grown in recent times before it released and were that the actual reason for it’s release, we can definitely say that, mission accomplished. It also produced rather SIZABLE international hits like the title track, Long Til It Bend (which really wasn’t a hit, but simply my choice as the album’s finest track), Don & Dupes alongside veteran singer Pinchers and, most notably, Driver A which proved to be one of the greatest Reggae ‘sleeper’ hits in recent memory and perhaps of all-time. However, even with as much work as Too Bad did for Buju and with as much as it even further exposed his name to an even wider range of audiences, things simply weren’t supposed to be that way, as I said, it was apparently simply a rather FANTASTICALLY timed slap at his critics. In the few years between his prior studio album to Too Bad. Friends For Life in 2003, Buju had been telling any and seemingly everyone who would listen, media or otherwise, about the coming of his next project which, in his mind, was set to do for him what his OPUS ‘Til Shiloh, one of the greatest albums of all time, had done for not only himself but the ENTIRE GENRE back in the mid 1990’s. This project had the somewhat sappy working title of Rasta Got Soul and, honestly, it sounded like some kind of molded and crafted attempt at somehow trying to take Roots Reggae music and FINALLY make it as popular and commercially viable in the international market just as much as the streaking Dancehall music was and has been (and still is). However, because of the Too Bad album Rasta Got Soul seemingly Got shelved and shelved indefinitely. Well ‘indefinitely’ also has a ‘shelf-life’ apparently as Buju now delivers what EASILY becomes one of the most anticipated Reggae album releases and perhaps even releases in general for 2009, Rasta Got Soul. The album couldn’t be MORE different than Too Bad and actually in terms of quality, perhaps they couldn’t be more similar. Rasta Got Soul is an album which will certainly be in the limelight and may ultimately give Buju the opportunity to take Roots music to the level where few besides himself can actually take it and in my opinion, the Too Bad album, in retrospect, was a stroke of GENIUS! That album set the stage for an album in Rasta Got Soul which certainly, in terms of the messages it presents, has very little ‘choice’ but to deliver more than Too Bad did right out of the gate. And its already being well received and the buzz, of course is quite high. RGS comes via Buju’s own Gargamel label, with himself (unsurprisingly) taking executive producer honours. But what about the actual music itself? Well, as I said, Buju Banton over the years, whether intentionally or by happenstance, has carved out a virtually PEERLESS place for himself within the grand scope of Reggae music: No artist is able to reach such a diverse and seemingly INSTANTLY LOYAL (he makes BIG fans very quickly) and group of fans as Buju. A big part of that is because when he is on, he could almost do no wrong. On Rasta Got Soul Buju is ON and what he delivers is, at times, downright MAGIC. Corny title and all.

Rasta Got Soul is unapologetically ROOTS Reggae music. If that isn’t ‘up your alley’, if you’re looking for some more strong Dancehall or if you’ve come looking for a mix of sorts, then you need not even pick this one up in the first place. Contrasted to Too Bad which, being Dancehall of course, was VERY much more accessible, Rasta Got Soul IS FOR REGGAE FANS, period. Well it just so happens that I am a Reggae fan (yay me!) and for me and the rest of the Reggae fans of the world Buju Banton’s Rasta Got Soul gets started in an absolutely DIVINE way. The first of the opening ‘trinity’ is the BIG sounding Hurt Us No More. This song is just SPARKLING! The tune has a very march-like vibes to it and it really shows off different styles that Buju runs throughout not only RGS but his career in whole and there are times here which he sounds very close to Marley and the vibe on this one just really gets things going on a high note. EXCELLENT opener. The next tune is TECHNICALLY the first single and a track that I used as a litmus test for the album of sorts, the BEAUTIFUL Magic City. This tune must have originated in around 2004-05 or so and was marked as the single for the upcoming RGS album and I’ve LOVED it since the first time I heard the song. Magic City is one of the first examples I point to when I say that Roots music can be ‘entertaining’ as well as the melody on this one is just as strong as the messages. With a video already in the can I’d love to see if the song gets any kind of international push because I think of all the tunes on RGS, it has the ability to damage worldwide. As I said, I also used Magic City as a litmus (or a standard) for the rest of the RGS album to see if it could outdo it or if I were simply to write a review proclaiming it the album’s finest tune. It isn’t. One of a few tunes which tops it follows it immediately, the BRILLIANT I Rise! I know I’ve heard this song somewhere before sang by someone else but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Who cares! The song is wonderful and so inspirational and I just love the kind of mid-tempo ‘sway’ it generates and I’m not ashamed to say it all, it made me cry the first time I heard it. MASSIVE tune, but still not the album’s best completes a fantastic opening.

Were you to just continue in succession on the album (and I will) my choice as Rasta Got Soul’s finest tune altogether comes in just next, the MIGHTY Rastafari. Now I may be biased, because the title of the song also identifies the path in life I walk, but I don’t care AT ALL. Rastafari is about as beautiful a song as Buju has EVER made in his entire career. The song just reached me to my foundation and built this Afrikan style chanting vibe which had me singing along the entire way and you will too! PEERLESS vibe praising His Majesty. As I said the type of fan, whether Roots, Dancehall or just in general, to my experience, who REALLY vibes to Buju is a more mature type of person and ‘mature’ (and INTELLIGENT) is a very nice way to describe the vibes that go into Rasta Got Soul. Perhaps never more mature than on the very understated but definitely powerful ska-ish A Little Bit Of Sorry. Buju has quietly been keeping the genre of ska in his rotation throughout the years and he probably has NEVER delivered such a shot in that vibe as A Little Bit Of Sorry which just so simply makes a powerful suggestion of proper usage of MANNERS and HUMILITY to one’s daily life routine. As he says, “If you think you’re bigger than saying ‘I’m Sorry’, then you have a problem in life”. He shouldn’t have to say it, but he does and it never sounded better. Mirror is another very mature tune with a very old school (cabaret sounding) and mature Reggae sound. This song suggests a bit of internal examination of oneself but it also wonderfully relates the product of such self-examination the external world so nice. You REALLY have to get into the lyrics on that one definitely. I could go down the line and keep going: Lend A Hand is another very intelligent song and it actually takes the next step because it’s one of the best tunes on RGS altogether, leading into the second half, on a BEAUTIFUL and simple one-drop. And Optimistic Soul just SOUNDED mature even before I started listening to it (doesn’t it). The song itself definitely doesn’t disappoint as it may just be one of the (if not THE) best written tunes on Rasta Got Soul. I love the chorus and just the vibes and messages in general as Buju in a very unifying stands just opens it up for people from all walks of life, regardless of their faith and practices. LOVE IT! You will too. And I have to quickly mention the obligatory lover’s tune Make You Mine which is more than just decent. As Rasta Got Soul winds down it saves two very standing out tracks, Bedtime Stories (which is suddenly VERY popular these days) and Sense Of Purpose which are the two combination tracks from the album. Bedtime Stories, another very MATURE tune, features Haitian American superstar Wyclef Jean returning the favour Buju delivered on his album, Welcome To Haiti from 2004. Bedtime Stories is a demented Bedtime Story, produced by Jean (who says on the tune’s intro, “This is the saddest bedtime story”), which relays the telling of a story that a child’s father won’t be coming home tonight, or any other night, because he has been killed. And Buju and Wyclef then takes the message to a biggest stage and really deliver a downright MOVING tune which is already creating such a buzz and definitely will continue to. Sense Of Purpose features Buju along another Reggae legend act, Third World and it is admittedly awkward at times (and kind of corny) but it’s growing on me. Both set the stage for two equally nice closers. The first is the WONDERFUL Be On Your Way. The tune is a thinly veiled slap at those who turn away from righteousness (in all of its forms), telling them to be on their way. INDEED. Big tune and one of the album’s best. Closing shop on Buju Banton’s Rasta Got Soul is the appropriately titled Lights Out. Lights Out isn’t an exceptional tune by any means but it fits in SO well with the vibes of the album and comes of as little more than a straight forward tune of prayer and giving thanks, but in actuality were this album DESIGNED and crafted down to every letter and note (and given how long its been in the works, it probably was) I don’t know if you could have even hoped for a more fitting vibes to close things out.

Overall, NO, I’m not prepared to say that Rasta Got Soul is as strong of an album as ‘Til Shiloh but it may just have the same impact and probably more. To my opinion, ‘Til Shiloh was an album, leading into others like Unchained Spirit and, of course, Inna Heights, which REVOLUTIONIZED all of Reggae music. Rasta Got Soul MAY have that effect as well as it has the opportunity to crossover without even trying to, based simply on the fact that it is a Buju Banton album. It has the POTENTIAL to push PURE ROOTS Reggae music to the mainstream audiences and see such a video playing on MTV or BET someday for this one. Also, to the new fans who just caught on at Too Bad, they’ll also be open to this music as well. And for those hardcore and dedicated, you, like me, will absolutely LOVE it. Rasta Got Soul, had such incredibly large shoes to fill indirectly through Til Shiloh and just the history in general, but it doesn’t even really try. Instead what it does is role in so undeniably POWERFUL that if you love Roots Reggae music, you’ll love Rasta Got Soul. Guaranteed.

Rated 4.5/5 stars

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