Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Not Now!: A Review of African Be Proud by Lutan Fyah

How many albums deep into a career for an artist do you go before you decide that it’s simply time to do something different? And when you do try ‘different’, how ‘different’ you go? Any artist, for the most part, within almost any genre of music, be they two or three albums deep into their catalogue will undoubtedly have that one which sticks out from the rest in terms of the nature of the sound. Be it a Hip-Hop artist going maybe a little bit too much on the R&B side, or a pop artist featuring a few more rappers than ever before to add a harder edge to their fluffy sound. In Reggae, while things are different than that, they’re not VERY different at all. Depending on the artist, that number “two or three” is probably doubled before you’ll really see anything in the nature of a full on unusual sounding album. And sometimes even, that ‘unusual’ sounding album isn’t very unusual at all, instead more of a sign of things to come as the artist has experienced a shift (or full blown change) in focus. For example, thinking of some of the more active artists in terms of album releases, I’ll look at someone like Sizzla and say that a case could be made that four albums into his career, which would be the Freedom Cry release from 1998, he had an album which differed from the previous three. It wasn’t a very large shift at all as the Freedom Cry album simply did what the others had done (or at least attempted to) but did so in a much more MELODIC style. The approach from the lyrical standpoint would remain the same, but they were LOVELY tunes were they on which Freedom Cry was built. He didn’t have a DISTINCTLY different album, did Sizzla, until (by my count) his eighth album, Bobo Ashanti in 2000. That album featured a much more AGGRESSIVE stance taken by the chanter and a few Hip-Hop vibed riddims as well. Looking at things more recently (and similar actually), Natural Black comes to mind as well. Much like in the case of the artist in question here, Black’s most recent release, also his eighth, is definitely to be considered the changeup of his stack, Guardian Angel. That album a harder edge than all of his previous releases and, to my ears actually, it is probably my LEAST favourite of his lot. Turbulence would be a little more difficult as you could definitely make the case that his very first release, the self titled piece from 2000, was a changeup in respect to what we would subsequently hear from the Xterminator product. However, after that, it would be (by my count) eight albums later on his ninth studio release (the AWFUL) Songs Of Solomon, which goes to be an example of my point (as does Sizzla’s case to a lesser degree) of being a sign of things to come. The SoS album was BAD lover’s album disguised as a Roots album and although he was more impressive than it consistently, there was a time when you could count more sappy love tunes coming from Turbulence than any other kind. Numbers like eight and nine are a far cry from two or three, but things move differently in Reggae, don’t they?

Not always, but usually. An example in the other way would be Dancehall poster boy of the moment, Mavado, whose most recent album, A Better Tomorrow, proved to be a far cry from the downright EVIL Mavado who cascaded throughout his debut, Gangsta 4 Life. Or, Mavado’s good friend Busy Signal, who pulled a similar trick between debut and sophomore projects: Going, in his case, from ghetto wordsmith on Stepping Out, to smooth charmer on the Loaded album. Maybe that’s just the Dancehall, but in the Roots arena, things appear more simple as Lutan Fyah now delivers what is EASILY to be regarded as the ‘oddball’ of his now seven studio albums, African Be Proud. ABP has SEVERAL things going unusually for it, even before we get to the actual music. The first DEFINITELY being its actual release: This album has been delayed for over a year if I recall correctly. Initially it was called Love The Creator which I remember seeing around online in 2007. Now, re-titled as African Be Proud it FINALLY comes to the masses via Rastar Records, a label based in Florida in The States with whom I’m pretty familiar as they previously did a very nice release from Midnite, Better World Rasta in 2007 and a WICKED riddim named after the label just the year before which featured the likes of Vaughn Benjamin, of course Lutan Fyah himself, Luciano, Natty King and NiyoRah who topped the riddim with his SUPERB tune We Shall See. Now, apparently more set in their status Rastar gets around to dropping ABP (virtually at the same time as Defenders Of The Faith, a solid compilation album also from the label and a new Jah Mason album forthcoming also) which has rather quietly became one of my more anticipated album releases of 2009 (even though I wasn’t so sure I’d EVER see it). This album also has the distinction of being the very first release from Lutan Fyah following what is turning into becoming his most commercially popular album to date, the double disc MONSTER that was Africa. So, when you take all of that into consideration, definitely there are going to be more sets of eyes and ears paying attention to African Be Proud that most Lutan Fyah other releases and MAYBE it wasn’t the best timing for one such as this as, if you just caught on to Lutan Fyah’s music at the Africa EXPERIENCE, then you may not necessarily get the same vibes from ABP that you were expecting. Why not? Well, as I said, this album is unique and that trend well stretches to the music and when the official promo material for it started to come out I had an uneasy feeling about it as I started more and more to see the rather liberal usage of the term Hip-Hop. If there was ONE single artist in all of Reggae music I think I would want to keep away from a Hip-Hop sound, it MIGHT actually be Lutan Fyah. Fyah makes such BEAUTIFUL Roots tunes, and even at times with a natural edge, that it almost seems a waste to carry that style and that abundance of lyrical ability towards a Hip-Hop style given not really any previous work from the Spanish Town native in that arena (at least not to my knowledge). Of course the question is, does it work? At times, yes. At others, not so much.

If you haven’t actually had the JOY of listening to Lutan Fyah previously, what you haven’t been listening to is simply one of the most SKILLED Roots Reggae artists I have EVER heard. He’s not one very much for the flare and the most constant critique you’ll ever hear of him is that he often lacks melody, which is just, however, what he lacks in dramatics, he makes up for in the written word. CONSISTENTLY there may be no finer writer in Reggae write now, period. Thankfully there is a bit of a ‘refresher’s course’ on African Be Proud, which I’ll split into parts, The Marcus Garvey and The Malcolm X segments. So, beginning the Marcus Garvey segment and the album itself, is a recording of The Honourable Marcus Garvey himself on the intro. Someday I hope some REGGAE label will put together some type of official release of Garvey’s existing speeches, which would definitely be a big thing (of course throwing some music in there as well). Of course take a listen to the brilliance the man brings forth and he leads into his portion of African Be Proud which is far more on the straight Roots Reggae vibe. Always welcomed opening. The first time we actually hear Lutan Fyah on African Be Proud the album is with the tune which it is named after which sounds PERFECT following Mr. Garvey as I’m sure it would be the type of tune he would listen to and enjoy. I’m not the fondest of the kind of electric guitar inspired one-drop riddim over which it flows, but the tune from a lyrical aspect is a MASTER CLASS from Lutan Fyah. This thing is just BRILLIANT! Every word goes to building the tune of Afrikan Pride and Redemption and is seemingly selected specifically for that purpose. WELL DONE. Next up is a little bit of a step down but not a large one on Uncle Sam’s New Laws. This tune has actually been receiving quite the buzz but, maybe because I listen to the artist so much but it’s pretty middle of the pack to me actually (but maybe I’m wrong). The same, fortunately, cannot be said for the next tune, Long Road, which is downright IMMACULATE. This tune definitely rises amongst the class of African Be Proud altogether and should you want to argue it’s the single best tune here, I’m not arguing. I, however, would save that distinction for the next tune up, Word Sound & Power which is as WICKED as it is INTELLIGENT. This is the type of song I wish Rastar would have made the ‘edgy’ type of tune, when you get Fyah a little agitated (as evidenced by tunes like Upliftment (Time & Place album) and current favourite, Watch Over Me from the Africa album) the results are USUALLY quite powerful and Word Sound & Power is DEFINITELY no exception at all! BIG tune. Packing up the Marcus Garvey segment of African Be Proud are two more impressive tunes, the HIGHLY complexly written and vibed Poor Man’s Privilege, another of my favourites here which is near brilliance (REALLY hear the lyrics on that one) and Fall Hard over the MIGHTY Rastar Riddim (still sounds good).

Then it’s the Malcolm X segment. As much as it may not be for me, I have to give Rastar credit for setting ABP up in this fashion. The Garvey portion (my words, not theirs) is built on Roots Reggae, typically inherently Jamaican tunes, while the Malcolm X side is the cross over, Hip-Hop side and, like Malcolm himself, basically more aggressive. Malcolm X himself (a descendant of ‘Garveyism‘), like Garvey, begins the side with a portion of a BIG speech. That leads into the first tune here, the rather DARK sounding Nothing Don’t Come Easy (double negative and all). It’s still a very well written tune (especially the third verse I believe) about working hard and persevering but it’s not as easily as digestible, which I suppose, would be my MAIN issue with the second part of African Be Proud. High Grade is actually a tune that I know from SOMEWHERE and is actually probably my favourite tune on the Malcolm X segment. High Grade features a harder sounding Lutan Fyah alongside an ALWAYS harder sounding Spectacular. The song is, of course, the album’s obligatory herbalist tune and although I often find Spectacular to run kind of streaky, High Grade fortunately finds him in a fine form (and the chorus on this one is ADDICTIVE) and making fine fine vibes with Lutan Fyah (the two are apparently good friends, it isn’t the first work they’ve done together). The next tune up is Youths Want More which is EASILY the hardest vibed tune on African Be Proud altogether. The thing about this one is that it almost seems overdone to a degree and I don’t think that I’d call it a Hip-Hop sounding tune but whatever it is, I don’t like the vibes which almost COMPLETELY take away from the typically impeccable lyrics and is, to be perfectly honest, a bit annoying because of it. Ghetto Youths is up next and its another tune that I’m familiar with as it flows across Rastar’s other and lesser known riddim, the Hip-Hop tinged Red Alert. I actually kind of liked the riddim when I first heard it and although my appreciation has definitely waned a bit but I still rate this tune. The class of that riddim (if I recall correctly) was Jah Mason and Lutan isn’t very far behind here with a song that I’ll say will get better to you after a few spins, so should you go through it one time and not like it so much, definitely come back to it at some point and you’ll probably like it more. Completing the Malcolm X segment and the entire African Be Proud is a tune which , based on the title alone, I was interested in hearing and actually hearing it, I’m not sure what I think of it. This riddim is VERY strange, (maybe not to you if you listen more Hip-Hop than I do) but, unlike whatever that was going on with Youths Want More, I can’t exactly dismiss it altogether because I don’t DISLIKE it actually. Whatever the word to describe whatever the feeling it is I have for this tune I will say that it isn’t amongst the best tunes on ABP, but it does have a curious appeal to some degree and, lest you forget to whom you are listening, the lyrics on the tune are top notch from one of the best.

Overall, I have to say that African Be Proud is somewhere ‘fighting’ with Lutan Fyah’s debut album, Dem No Know Demself, as my least favourite album of his career, but it isn’t a bad album and although I harped on it in my review, I can’t say that the Hip-Hop direction that Rastar chose to take it in was a FAILURE (and it was bound to happen at some point and as I said by his peers, it seems that this is a pretty fitting time). But the problem here is that it CLEARLY doesn’t work as much as it could: ANY album you push from Lutan Fyah at this point with a PURE (or at least close to it) ROOTS Reggae vibes, is all but certain to be a winner and from the album’s first seven tracks (minus the intro) Rastar proves capable of providing just that. However, the direction the second portion goes in it takes away from what could have been a very BIG album and following the Africa album, would have been one set up to achieve so much. Also I have to mention that when you take away the two intros/interludes there are only actually eleven tunes here (and one of those, Fall Hard, is VERY familiar) which seems so odd after so much delay. All that being said, this album will probably do very well and the buzz has already been big. I would recommend it more to the newer Lutan Fyah fan who DEFINITELY might have an ear for Hip-Hop. Such an individual might actually rate African Be Proud VERY high. However, you well initiated heads out there will simply ask WHY! Just like I did.

Rated 3/5 stars
Rastar Records

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