Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Coming Soon: Contagious by Tarrus Riley

(Tentative Tracklist)
01.Love's Contagious
02.Human Nature
03.Start A New
04.Young Hearts
05.S Craving
06.Let Peace Reign featuring Duane Stephenson & Etana
07.Man Kind Not Kind
08.Hi Grade Promotion featuring Demarco & Vybz Kartel
09.Stop Watch Yuh Brother
10.Living The Life Of A Gun
11.Good Girl Gone Bad featuring Konshens
12.Super Man

In a few hours the first half of 2009 will be over. With it it will take some very good Reggae releases and leave us to look forward to what the second half brings. Just like the first half, with pieces such as Mavado's sophomore effort, A Better Tomorrow and Queen Ifrica's Montego Bay amongst others apparently and expectedly the second half is buoyed by leading label VP Records who, on August 4th, delivers one of the most anticipated and potentially BIGGEST albums of the year when Tarrus Riley comes with his third studio project, the much anticipated Contagious. Named after a tune currently bubbling over a relick of Bob Marley's Coming In From The Cold riddim, Contagious will seek to (and will succeed at) building on the hype began a VERY short three years ago with the now MASSIVE Parables album which may prove to be one of the most IMPORTANT Reggae albums of recent times, if it isn't already.

Parables was also release by VP Records back in 2006 and it caught FLAMES becoming one of the most popular and commercially successful albums of that year and as it was released on Halloween day 2006, its popularity definitely spread out, making it one of the most popular of the following year as well. Tarrus Riley, the son of longtime SOLID veteran Jimmy Riley aligned himself with MASTER producer/musician/engineer/songwriter/arranger/genius Dean 'Cannon' Fraser and also managed to align himself with the new generation of young Rootsmen/Women including himself, Etana, the aforementioned Queen Ifrica and Duane Stephenson (all of whom are VP artists). The label also, expectedly, picked up the rights to Tarrus Riley's debut release from 2004 Challenges and slapped two new tunes on and re-released it last year.

Now, all eyes turn to the young Riley as the summer is potentially all his with the Contagious album. Judging from the tracklist (if it is in fact the final list and it may not be) there are big things happening here! Of course the two standouts to hear will be the two double combinations, Let Peace Reign alongside the aforementioned Etana & Duane Stephenson and the obvious herbalist tune Hi-Grade Promotion alongside Dancehall heads Vybz Kartel and Demarco (big tune out now name Over & Over, Demarco and Tarrus Riley combination). Riley has remarked that he wanted the album to come in much more 'standard' fashion in terms of making far more newer tunes SPECIFICALLY for Contagious (as he basically did for both of his previous two efforts to my knowledge) as opposed to just bringing together some of the MANY singles he's been doing as of late. Thankfully, he has included at least one very well known previous single, Start A New for Juke Boxx' Nylon Riddim.

One of the most anticipated albums of 2009, Contagious by Tarrus Riley arrives in stores and on digital retailers on August 4th (buy and ten days later wish my happy earthday!). Potentially one of the best albums of the year.

Rated Potential: 5/5 stars
VP Records
Releases on August 4, 2009
{Note: Listening to some bites from it right now. Contagious is SHINING! Can't wait!}

Monday, June 29, 2009

Abstract Genius: A Review of To Mene by Midnite

By this point I think that I am almost ‘programmed’ to have a certain time between reviewing and listening in depth to Midnite albums. If I haven’t written a review for a Midnite album in a certain amount of time, then frankly I just get a bit paranoid as to what has happened to Reggae’s most active ‘group’. Of course, just because I haven’t been paying attention (on paper) doesn’t mean that ‘they’ve’ slowed down or even altered their release schedules at all because ‘they’ haven’t. Midnite remains BY FAR the most active releasing act in Reggae music and despite the fact that many of their formerly overactive peers such as Sizzla, Luciano and Anthony B have slowed down their release schedules (WONDERFULLY to a degree), Midnite remains largely unaffected. And its all the more remarkable that ‘Midnite’ isn’t really Midnite at all these days as the word within the scope of Reggae albums (and not to my knowledge in terms of performing where some kind of form of the group still exists) has simply become the stage name of the lead singer, Vaughn Benjamin. Thus, the name Midnite will pop up pretty much ANYWHERE Benjamin chooses to give as much as a VERSE of his time and talents on an album. And I’ll spare you, at least for the moment, the recapping the exact ridiculous schedule Benjamin has been on particularly over the past two or three years and instead focus primarily on the (potential) weight this takes on his output. I think to SOME degree, regardless of how much I cling to Sizzla albums, Jah Mason albums and Natural Black albums that over-activity HAS to have some type of effect on an artist. As someone who doesn’t fancy himself an actual ‘artist’ but knows how difficult it is to maintain an active ‘schedule of creativity’ on a smaller scale (see the blog you are currently reading) I can even tell you that it takes a toll. Never mind that in Vaughn’s particular case he’s potentially reaching MILLIONS more people than I am and having to do so not only lyrically but many times musically as well. Add to that fact that he doesn’t necessarily play in the same circles as his Jamaican counterparts in that, in order to keep one’s self prominent in Jamaica, a steady stream of SINGLES is necessary. You could literally pull that off with about twenty songs a year, provided that five or so of those prove to be hits of some level with at least two or three going truly BIG. Benjamin doesn’t go that route. Instead he chooses to go with FULL BLOWN ALBUMS. Writing, producing (for himself and others), recording, touring, promoting and making the not too odd and not too occasional guest spot on someone else’s project and you have to start wondering where the negative impact takes place (and you also have to start wondering if there are actually two or three Vaughn Benjamins).

So where is it? Well going back to his peers, its far more ‘visual’ and evident where the musical wear and tear takes place. Sizzla? I’m FULL under the impression that Sizzla’s seemingly never ending ‘experiment’ with the harsher and more Dancehall style vibes is the result of him going to the studio over and over to voice the same type of tune and wanting to change things up. Thus, you get controversial tunes like Pump Up (which was a hit) and just strange ass albums like Blaze Up The Chalwa and Ghetto Revolution where he seemed to wage a personal war against all things normal. Turbulence doesn’t get tired of making the same type of song and instead seems to revel in the mediocrity of his lover’s tunes and someone like Beenie Man and Elephant Man try to outdo each other for who can make up the catchiest (and most ridiculous) dance tunes. Even in regards to being not as his best Vaughn Benjamin manages to separate himself from the pack as, in my opinion, what you see in Benjamin’s music that may denote a level of over activity or simply being at less than his best for whatever reason is just downright STRANGE. Even the most causal fan of Midnite and Benjamin would have to admit that even in regards to their more direct peers such as Bambu Station and Batch & Ras Attitude, their music isn’t what you would call ‘normal’ by any stretch of the word. However, there are times when Benjamin takes the range of his music and doesn’t necessarily DESTROY it (that would be far too normal for him) but instead he seems to ‘grow’ it in the sense that either something he would say more literally at his best (and when I say “more literally” it doesn’t mean very literal at all in usual terms, that just isn’t his way) and pushes it to a point where you would need him sitting there to explain it to you to REALLY get it; or he will take a ‘simple’ song by his standards and just totally use a different type of backing and one which probably isn’t for the better of the sonic appeal for the tune as a whole. If you’re looking for an example, I’d point to the Thru & True album which is widely regarded as incredibly strange and an album which I feel somewhat mirrors that one from 2006, the 2007 album Aneed. Both of those albums were just so different sounding projects which was even perceptible to the most casual of Benjamin/Midnite fans (like my wife). Well, now Benjamin now brings forth another to throw into that category as he releases yet another album, To Mene, on what is quickly becoming his favourite label, the US based Rastar Records. Previously, the St. Croix lyrical wizard teamed up with the Florida based label for two releases; the very strong Better World Rasta from 2007 and last year’s SOLID Supplication To H.I.M. (which was kind of weird in and of itself but picked up after a fairly slow start). He was also appeared featured prominently (under the name ‘Midnite‘) on the label’s recent compilation, the solid Defender Of The Faith; and of course, To Mene has a ‘brother’ (more on that in at the end) in a very Midnite-ish turn of events. To Mene is an album which, in my opinion, is kind of frustrating: Unlike both Aneed and Thru & True, this album is quite redeemable as the words here are SO STRONG (Benjamin is a genius if you don’t know) at times but the combination between Benjamin’s chanting/talking and the music used here is what really pushes this out of any proverbial box in which it might (but CLEARLY doesn’t) exist.

I’m almost certain to say this again at the end of this review, however, I’ll put it here just to pre-remind you in effect: IF YOU ARE NOT A FAN OF MIDNITE’S AND WANT ‘SOMEWHERE TO START’ DO NOT CHOOSE THIS ALBUM. To Mene is a case of only hardcore fans need apply. Prime example is the opener of the album, the title track which I’m sure many of Vaughn Benjamin’s fans had already associated with ‘To Menen’ as in the wife of His Imperial Majesty (as purposely misspelling words on track lists is apparently amongst Benjamin’s favourite hobbies, see Aneed album). The actual saying of the word is, however, used as ‘too many’. Again, if you are a new fan you might listen to this opening tune, especially in light of what I just wrote, and think it very odd but its actually one of the most NORMAL tunes on the album named after it. Of course he pretty much ignores the riddim, as he usually does, and ends up delivering one of the strongest points on the album and definitely follow the words on the laid back tune, as I said, the man is a genius. Decent opening but the fun has yet to start. That ‘fun’ definitely gets closer on the next tune, Discipline and pretty much grabs you up. Tell me any reason at all why this song has ANY music behind it. Its essentially a spoken word poem but the riddim, which is BARELY there kind of annoys the listener (certainly didn’t ignore Benjamin, he hardly seems to notice it anyway) and distracts the BRILLIANCE he spills forth on the tune which may be one of the most knowledge packed tunes that I’ve heard from him and that’s saying quite a lot. If Discipline doesn’t strike you at odd then hopefully (for your sake) the next tune will, as good friend of Benjamin, Ancient King, takes up the next five minutes or so of your time yelling at you to the top of his lungs on Drum, his first of three appearances on To Mene. Again, if you have patience and can discern the lyrics of the tune you’ll probably like what’s being said (particularly if walk the same path in life as Ancient King and I do) but what you have to go through to get that message and that vibes. . . It’s just not worth it! All in all, a very different opening to say the least.

As I implied, the range of normal or ‘typical’ for Vaughn Benjamin differs from most in Reggae, yet unsurprisingly, when To Mene does work is when he veers closer to his own norm instead of whatever else you want to call what’s going on here. To my opinion, he comes pretty close two or three times in the midst of the madness of To Mene and when he does, he scores. The biggest score you’ll find is right after the opening when the LOVELY This Way rings through (and true). The tune has a very ‘quiet’ nature to its vibes and while doing that it maintains Benjamin’s usual pack of knowledge and I don’t particularly know if its THAT strong (ask me in about a month) or its just so nice here but whatever it is, it remains the CLEAR highlight of To Mene. Psalm 87 From 1 also comes fairly close with its nice serene sound but kind of ‘stern’ form of delivery. That’s another one where you really need to try and focus on the words and, unlike several other tunes on To Mene, its not very difficult as the riddim is there and noticeable but it wonderfully CRAWLS as a nice backing (and the third verse on the tune is HUGE). I’ll also mention the later tunes With In It All (its not a very good tune but I LOVE that sappy chorus), the decent Play and On Riddim which is just SO NICE throughout and probably the second best tune on the album. As I said, it wasn’t totally lost, To Mene and you have to wonder what it could have been had Benjamin focused more on what works instead of what might or might not. What certainly didn’t work for me on the album was the use of Ancient King. Besides his opener, The Drum, the King comes back twice more. The first time is on Ithiopia which is better than The Drum and knowledge packed as well but he insists on yelling over a backing which just isn’t FIT for such a delivery. The riddim is POUNDING but SERENE at the same time and Benjamin, with all his idiosyncrasies would DAMAGE the piece but instead Ancient King just makes me wonder what would have been had Vaughn saved this one for himself. And then there’s what is technical closer of To Mene, Heak Yeah (did you see what they did there???) on which Ancient King again goes crazy. This one just isn’t that good all around and I’m wondering if maybe Ancient King just isn’t that good or is it ONLY I-Grade who ran his debut album, the very good Conquering Sound, that can bring out his best. With Benjamin back at the controls you just get more ‘curious’ pieces. Check In Replay which shockingly features him actually trying to stay on the riddim’s beat and although he may succeed in that respect, this one is just not very good regardless of how its set. There’s Back Lash which kind of sounds like an old tune from US R&B star D’Angelo by the name of My Lady and I shouldn’t have to say more than that. And I don’t know what’s going on with the shuffling sound on Sip & Satta. It literally sounds like three or four different tunes playing at once during certain parts of the tune (especially with this snare/marching drum sound) which makes it even harder to focus on the words. And I’ll leave the DECENT surprise which checks in to end things to your discoveries. . . Just as Vaughn himself would do, I’m sure.

Overall, a few things I should say. The first is that if you don’t like To Mene (and you might because there are quite a few people who liked Aneed and Thru & True and the For All album from last year also) well then you can simply wait a few days or so as, set to drop is To Mene’s SLIGHTLY younger brother, Ina Now, any day now as Vaughn Benjamin apparently makes up for lost time (all 5 months or so of it). The next is to reiterate what I told you I would, this album is only for longtime Midnite fans (obviously longer time than me) who can appreciate a shift like this and while its not as great a shift as the two aforementioned others, its still quite noticeable and I feel it wouldn’t give a newer fan an accurate representation of who Midnite really is these days. And Benjamin has such a LOYAL fan base that I’m sure To Mene will be heralded as BRILLIANT and in some respects it really is. However, for all of my insists on calling it strange and off-radar, what To Mene does accomplish is to continue to show us the VERY mysterious world of Vaughn Benjamin: One of the very few UNQUESTIONABLE geniuses walking the earth today.

Rated 2/5 stars
Rastar Records

Sunday, June 28, 2009

New Artist Of The Month: Meet Shelly G!

Shelly G

Meet Shelly G! If you were at all distracted (like most people who like Soca) by Trinidad's first Carnival season of undisputed female dominance with longtime star Faye-Ann Lyons breaking through the machismo and holding one of the most memorable year's EVER, then you may have missed the coming out party for one Shelly G not too far away in Guyana. Having been around but a few years (although making a relatively BIG name for herself in said time frame) Shelly G took top honours in her native Guyana's Soca Monarch competition with a performance to be remembered of her tune Work It.

The song and the performance, much like a bit of Shelly G's career has been marked in controversy as she invokes the thankfully all but gone 'daggering' phenomenon for which she drew quite a bit of criticism. I, as someone who was TIRED AS HELL of the daggering stuff, honestly have to admit that I still liked the performance and the tune in its original form also.

The fuss wasn't exactly new to Shelly as she had previously drawn criticism for the not so 'implied' explicitness of previous videos such as (MOST NOTABLY)

The downright PORNISH Touch Meh (check out the atrociously out of place, yet damn funny, chipper tourist in the blue shirt in the midst of the semi-porn). I then challenge you to listen to that song and not have it stuck in your head for quite awhile. Shelly G has, in not too long of a time, made her name as one of the most respected names in Guyana Soca and music scene in general. And for me she definitely serves a bit of a 'guilty pleasure' role as I tend to like her music at least to some degree.

Apparently I'm not the only one as she recently announced the coming digitization of her sophomore album release Work It on August 5th. Work It features some of her bigger hits to date including the aforementioned Work It (DUH!) and Touch Meh alongside others such as Bump N Grind

Reportedly she will spend the second half of her 2009 promoting her forthcoming Reggae album, also to be released this year, for the VERY well respected Walter Fraser of Vizion Sounds, the label behind some of Guyana's top Reggae talents including First Born and even star Natural Black (and wouldn't a Black - Shelly G combination be WICKED for the album!).

So keep an eye and couple of ears out for Shelly G. Work It is online August 5th and the Reggae album is scheduled for a December release. And who knows what else lies under the sleeves of Guyana's reigning first Queen of Soca Monarch!

{note: Another sexy one!}

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Incomparable: A Review of Heavenly Drum by Machel Montano

As the search for the next great Caribbean music superstar continues I think its very interesting to kind of take ‘inventory’ as to who we currently have playing the role. With so many labels and artists and producers popping up on a seemingly never-ending daily basis the personification of the ‘goal’ which they are seeking to reach is kind of barren these days but is full of VERY familiar faces. Probably the most well known Caribbean artist in the world is and has been for the past decade or so, Shaggy. He of course plays on a different level than most of his peers because the lion’s share of his audience is, of course, outside of the Caribbean (the same could be said about the next person I’m going to mention) and he LARGELY underrated and underappreciated here although, almost unnecessarily, Shaggy has wonderfully seen his local fame go up because of several causes he has been involved in pushing and making music, which goes without saying. There’s also Dancehall poster boy, Sean Paul, and with a new album loaded and ready to go in the very near future as of this writing, the Uptown superstar ‘threatens’ to overtake Shaggy as the international face of Reggae, if he hasn’t actually done so already (and he may have). Again, like I said, Sean Paul’s is a fame which, although probably more locally respected than Shaggy’s (seeing Sean Paul’s name pop up on a riddim from a local producer isn’t RARE at all, not even in this time, the same isn’t true for Shaggy), is largely based outside of the Caribbean and to that degree he has quietly become a WONDERFUL spokesperson and representative for the music if for no other reason that, perhaps by even his own admission, he isn’t the best of his craft and if not that then certainly by his humble behaviour in total. After Sean Paul and Shaggy you really start to get into a VERY interesting group of artists who have built their stardoms almost exclusively in the Caribbean and Caribbean musical hotspots throughout the world. Artists who fall into the line of this category are, of course, someone like Beenie Man who, SHOCKINGLY has managed to charm his way to superstardom despite maintaining bits and pieces of his small bad-boy persona by virtue of the fact that he is, by far, one of the most talented individuals to pick up the mic in Reggae EVER. A case could be made for Beenie Man’s counterpart, Bounty Killer, although that case has always been a hard one to make and is becoming even harder by the moment. I’m also going to throw the name MAVADO into the fray as someone whose appeal has (even more shockingly the Beenie’s maintenance of his) grown to a point where RIGHT NOW he can probably be considered in that group (although I don’t know if he can maintain it and I have my doubts). Other possible choices include Vybz Kartel, Baby Cham (whose next move, however far away it may be, will prove or disprove his levels) and Lady Saw. Although all of that is just in Jamaica and Reggae.

Sticking with strictly my English speaking artists (biggup Kassav, Tanya St. Val, Krys, Admiral T, Michele Henderson and Izaline Calister), in terms of the stereotypical ‘attitude’ that one might associate with being a superstar in music (read - ‘diva’ male or female) if the Caribbean’s greatest superstar doesn’t walk into the studio every time Beenie churns out another ass shaking hit, then that title is one which hovers over one Trinidadian Machel Montano each and every Carnival season and beyond. Season in and season out Machel’s songs are amongst the most discussed and, when he’s ON, the most well appreciated and popular as they have been for a very long time. A former child star, he also has the type of built in ‘familiarity’ which has allowed his fans to either watch him grow up be they younger or older, or for fans within that same age range (I believe Montano turns thirty-five this year), literally grow up alongside him and like the second wave of artists I mentioned, his popularity too is strongest in the Caribbean and the even smaller hotbeds of the Soca music he makes (and to the levels of spottiness of such places and the fact that Soca and Carnival remains much of a ‘seasonal’ type of music). Machel Montano is a bonafide star whether you know his name or not. And with such stardom, he almost inherently opens himself to MORE criticisms than most of his peers. Chances are that there are quite a few people who know the name Machel Montano for one reason or another and maybe able to associate it with SOMETHING or another, however, it remains in their minds and have NO IDEA who someone like Bunji Garlin or Iwer George is. Thus, there were that many more mouths, however educated or uneducated on the topic they may be, that Machel’s 2009 Trinidad and Tobago Carnival season was definitely sup-bar and quite a bit underwhelming to say the least. Similarly, early talk from the masses saying similar things about Garlin’s season virtually vanished once he released a couple of BIG tunes and while Machel did the same, that talk never disappeared for him. Now, having released his obligatory tune for Crop Over (Tell Me, which I’m still brewing over), Machel functionally puts a bow on his musical 2009 with his expected and delayed album Heavenly Drum. The album comes on the tail end of a downright CROWDED season for the superstar as besides the music, Machel, engaged in a whirlwind of other activities, including a children’s book (Boy Boy & The Magic Drum), a musical (same title) both of which he ‘reportedly’ aimed at pushing Trinidadian musical culture (success on that front) to the next generation AND, back to the music, he also simultaneously launched an album for his ‘crew’ Machel Montano Presents The HD Family. However, perhaps the most anticipated portion of the confusion and the madness (and the ‘convolusion’) at this point is the album, Heavenly Drum. The album is a showcase for what has been one of Machel’s and company’s more uneven in recent years and while that quality is definitely reflected here, Heavenly Drum DEFINITELY is more than a complete loss.

Machel Montano has had many albums to date as a solo artist and part of his former group and band Xtatik but DEFINITELY it is the last two or three, specifically both Flame On (2008) and Book Of Angels (2007), to which Heavenly Drum will be compared as it finds Montano still well within the ‘HD’ realm (more on that in a bit). And if you haven’t heard Machel Montano’s music as of yet (shame on you) you can expect more of the same INTENSE CRAZINESS which marked both of those brilliant efforts. Beginning Machel Montano’s brand new album for 2009 is Mesmerize, one of his most polarizing tunes of the year. The song definitely isn’t within the scope of ‘regular’ for Soca music (or Reggae) but it has a nice and cool vibes to it like an R&B or poppish sounding tune. I’ve heard so many people say they HATE it or LOVE it, I don’t have such extreme emotions for the tune, good or bad. Decent opening. The next tune could also be said to be something other than Soca (but this one, I LIKE) as Machel calls in the first of several collaborators, Bermy’s finest, Collie Buddz for the NICE Fly Away. In my opinion, its pretty much a Soca tune, albeit definitely on the slower side even for a groovy tune but it was just LOVELY. Definitely one of my favourites from Machel this year and considering all the criticisms he received, I feel that Fly Away was beyond reproach to a degree as, although it by no means was the greatest, it just has such a nice nice vibes, even now. Wonderful combination and one of the album’s best. Completing the opening of the Heavenly Drum is another combination and perhaps one even more high profile as Machel teams up with Jamaican Dancehall future star Busy Signal (I mean like within a year or so, like very soon for Busy) for a remix of his tune Push Bumpers. I don’t really like it and I don’t think I’ve ever been very high on it’s original version (which is also on the album) but I just like the combination. If you take that on paper allure out of the tune, then its okay. All in all a DECENT beginning.

Of course, myself, I’m much more of a CRAZY jump up type of a person. And when Machel Montano goes in that direction, even if he doesn’t go FULL ON, the results are usually MADNESS! He does go FULL ON with the tune which, in my opinion, was his greatest solo effort and the best on Heavenly Drum, his Road March contender Wild Antz. Yes the video sucked and so many people even bashed the song itself that you almost got embarrassed saying you liked it but I DON’T GIVE A FUCK! Wild Antz was MAD! And if I were the only one who felt so (and I’m not) I wouldn’t care! It didn’t deserve to win Road March and it didn’t but it rather easily ranks in the top five songs Trinidad produced for 2009. MASSIVE! Not as HYPE but arguably just as strong on a different level was the underrated and overlooked Won’t Stop. This one is just POLISHED! It doesn’t make you jump as high or wave as fast as Wild Antz but the groove on this one is downright addictive and, in my opinion, might’ve had an even greater shot at the road than the Antz did, in retrospect. Then we come to Ravin’. This one is a tune where I have to admit that my LONG feelings about it were incorrect because I never REALLY gave it a shot, but Ravin is SERIOUS! Of course it takes a backseat in my opinion because every time I hear that BEAUTIFUL riddim get going my brain almost immediately starts singing Patrice Roberts’ MASSIVE Sway In D Mas which topped Machel’s effort but Ravin is very nice as well and the vibe is crazy same way. Stunnin’ doesn’t quite reach those levels and definitely wasn’t one of my favourites from Machel this year but I have grown to have a greater appreciation for it through the months so definitely don’t give up on it through juts a few spins. The other tunes here are marked by, in my opinion for the most part, big tunes on paper which either don’t ‘pan’ out so well or just really SOLID material but not SPECTACULAR results with one exception. That exception is the title track which is downright INSPIRING. I’m a grown ass man, soon to be twenty-eight years old and Magic Drum makes me, old and jaded as I am, feel like a little kid. I’m not typically SO in love with the pan sound (I’m Jamaican, DUH!) but Magic Drum is some type of tune which sets Machel MUSICALLY apart from so many of his peers. The tune is wonderful and aided by the venerable Phase II group (led by Len ‘Boogsie’ Sharpe who is given direct credit) multiple time champions of the Panorama competition (which is like Pan Monarch). And the tune is even given a nice ’road mix’ of sorts which features Machel alongside longtime veteran (and good friend) Chinese Laundry and it more or less serves as the storyline for the Boy Boy & The Magic Drum concept. In two editions - HUGE tune, old school style. One of the more ‘curious’ pieces here is the COMPLETELY out of ‘character’ and SLOW and SOCIALLY CONSCIOUS (which he has done before, the entire 2009 ‘concept’ was socially conscious) and PERSONAL. The tune was livicated to an engineer of Machel’s and HD’s Wayne Ephraim who died this year as well as to so many others (Rest In Zion Shel Shok). Its not the best tune but you measure songs like this on more than sound, don’t we and it also features ‘rapper‘ Make-It-Hapn (he sounds like a rapper to me) also from out of Trinidad. And Pray along with the original version of Magic Drum lead us into the conclusion of Heavenly Drum which is two mixes. The first is your standard, average and everyday road mix for Wild Antz. You’ll have a hard time finding a version of the original that I won’t appreciate and the road mix, for what it is, isn’t that. Lastly is a very INTERESTING and CREATIVE piece, the Jumbie Antz, which is a fusion of the Wild Antz with Montano’s 2007 Road March winner Jumbie. SCATHING! And a better note to send out the Heavenly Drum.

Here’s the thing. From a musical standpoint there are a few things missing from Heavenly Drum. The first would be the SWEET combination Tonight which features the DIVINE Alaine alongside Machel. Also absent is the combination Let Me See featuring US superstar hip-hopper Busta Rhymes. And probably a few others (including yet another Push Bumpers remix with the aforementioned Sean Paul AND Floor On Fire with hip-hoppers Lil John and Pitbull)) including at least ONE combination with Patrice Roberts, certainly a requirement for any Montano album these days. I’d also like to mention the lack of ‘HD’ emblazoned on the cover right? Unlike both the Flame On and Book Of Angel albums which specifically say HD there. HOWEVER, if you haven’t noticed the album is called Heavenly Drum and not only that but literally replacing HD is Machel’s NEW alter ego at the top of the cover, HESUS DIVINE. Take from it, what you will.

Overall, with everything that went on with Machel and The HD Family in 2009 its definitely a big thing that they delivered not only one but two different albums with no tunes crossing over (which probably explains the lack of a Patrice song on the album). As I said, Machel Montano or whatever he’s calling himself these days is a STAR, no doubt about it so his releases are certain to get a BIG international attention each and every time through. Here’s the thing, when people who wouldn’t otherwise pick up an album like this grap this one, while they won’t find Machel at his musical finest, what they will find is an artist seemingly forever redefining himself for one reason another. This form of Machel? Hesus Divine isn’t as good as the Machel of Flame On or Book of Angels but still may be FAR stronger than all of us gave him credit for being and as usual: I can’t wait for next year.

Rated 3.5/5 stars
Ruff Rex/J&W Productions

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Vault Reviews: Conquering Sound by Ancient King

I always find it quite interesting to check certain lines of ‘lineage’ in Reggae music as, unlike most other genres, its often the case that every style you hear in our music, has come from somewhere, be it a single artist or a combination of more than one artist. Of course, that’s almost always because of the size and the number of our performers and from where they come, namely Jamaica, so what happens a lot is not only does a younger and up and coming artist clearly show influences from another, more established name, he often gets to work DIRECTLY with that artist in a mentoring type of form. Now this isn’t to call upon the kind of clichéd and overused, in my opinion, ‘inspired’ tag where one artist will say whom he or she looked up to. For example, I’ve heard I-Wayne list Sizzla Kalonji as one of the artists that inspired him to get into the music. I-Wayne doesn’t sound anything like (anyone) Sizzla and if Kalonji never existed, I-Wayne would probably sound exactly as he does now. What I am talking about, however, is something like what happens when contrasting artists like Garnet Silk and Ras Shiloh. Of course, this (and my next) example is at an extreme end as Shiloh has virtually livicated his entire career to the late and great Manchester native in adopting a style SO similar to Silk’s that it STILL confuses hardcore Roots Reggae heads to this day sometimes as to exactly which of the two might be singing a particular tune or another. Another very nice example would be Luciano’s influence on Natty King. Again, this is another extreme example as Natty King was admittedly one of the Messenjah’s biggest fans and once pursued his career under the stage name Lucie B in honour of the legendary Roots singer. I should also mention that in both cases, Ras Shiloh and Natty King, it is a testament to the younger artists that they have admittedly taken large pieces of their favourite artists styles and STILL managed to distinguish themselves HIGHLY in the business. Other, more ‘regular’ examples of what I mean here would be someone like Bounty Killer’s influence on Aidonia, as it is Aidonia DIRECTLY and not Vybz Kartel or Busy Signal who seems to have literally updated the Killer’s style just as he had done to Ninja Man’s; Turbulence’s obvious ode to Sizzla so early in his career and even though now WELL into his own vibes (I think Turbulence will be 30 next January), you’ll still occasionally hear the Turbulence of old who sounded like a better singing voiced less lyrically talented version of the wizard of August Town; and you also can mention rather outlying examples such as Spragga Benz to Assassin (although from a PURE sonic point of view that one doesn’t hold up as well) and Admiral T to his direct disciple Saïk. Those are all FINE examples of lineages of style in Reggae music and the very fact that the music can be as STRONG and ORIGINAL as it is with that, is simply a testament to both the brilliances of yesteryear and today as well.

By far one of the more interesting BIG artists who has definitely left his imprint on the game is Capleton. Tracing the musical ‘lineage’ of Capleton’s style is such a contentious and polarizing point as critics and fans alike will seemingly either list those artists whom he has CLEARLY DIRECTLY influenced in terms of their style either VERY high or equally VERY low. The ones who believe that Capleton’s influence is wide spreading will go as far as to list artists like Sizzla, Anthony B and even Buju Banton and Ninja Man as people who have been taken Capleton’s style and worked it into their own ways. On the other hand, those who believe that he hasn’t had many TRUE musical ‘descendants’ will look upon those who have accurately followed his style to some degree as much more thin. I just happen to be one of these people in the latter and more slimming way of thinking in Capleton’s actual artist influence. Of course that’s no diss at all to the Prophet who rather EASILY ranks in my top five of artists of all time but when you look at those who have come not only with a similar style (which can be said with both Sizzla and Anthony B, whose own base style, at least in my opinion, CLEARLY overwhelm anything they may have (and probably didn’t) take from Capleton) but a at least a CHUNK of his musical mission and musical understanding as well. So who has taken the style constructed by Capleton which won him MILLIONS of followers worldwide? Well, the most obvious choice is the long underrated and almost forgotten chanter from Capleton’s own base, David House, Jah Thunder. The Thunder is an artist, like the individual in question here today, who has either COMPLETELY eschewed having a style somewhere in the middle grow, which Capleton himself has (see Good In Her Clothes) and instead has made himself into one of the most INTENSE Roots chanters of all time. A very good case could also be made for Jah Mason, who, again in my opinion, took what Capleton did further than anyone besides the man himself and added to it a FINE middle level of vibes built upon his own personality and downright MOODINESS at times. Another FINE example would be St. Croix born Ancient King. The former ‘Willow’ (his given name is Wendell Francois), made his international emergence on the strength of the highly regarded Conquering Sound album for the venerable I-Grade Records back in 2005 as the Fyah portion of the label’s biggest push to date, to my knowledge, Fyah - Earth - Wind (‘Earth’ was NiyoRah’s A Different Age album and ’Wind’ was the veteran Army’s I-Grade debut, Rasta Awake). Ancient King (then Willow) had apparently impressed I-Grade head Laurent ‘Tippy’ Alfred a few years earlier in 2002 when he delivered three very strong tracks on one of the label’s earliest releases, a compilation named Weep Not which also featured I-Grade staples Midnite and Dezarie. Ancient King, perhaps more so than anyone not named Capleton or Jah Thunder understood the concept of translating that FIERY style in powerful vibes and on Conquering Sound he delivered a vibes throughout which Capleton himself would have been proud of.

For me personally, within the Fyah -Earth- Wind releases from I-Grade, initially and maybe still I was most impressed with Ancient King (since then, my tastes have DEFINITELY shifted towards NiyoRah) as his style was something which was more familiar. At that time, still new listening to Virgin Islands Reggae, I hadn’t really found an artist who sounded like the Jamaican artists with the exception of Pressure (who I may have actually ‘discovered’ after Ancient King. He didn’t sound like Dezarie or Vaughn Benjamin or Army, his style was MUCH more ‘comfortable’ to me and required virtually no adjusting on my part. The first six tunes on Conquering Sound are WICKED and Ancient King launches into them in very nice fashion especially considering the comparisons I’ve drawn to this point. Getting the album started is the title track which features, of all people, Prince Pankhi, a former member of the David House Family and another artist who has clearly been influenced by The Prophet. Calling it the least of the first six but still a strong tune might tell you what to expect but make no mistake about it, Conquering Sound the tune is an absolutely DOMINATING vibes (with a subtle shot out to Mutabaruka by Pankhi) Next up is a BIG yet underappreciated tune in my opinion, Your Defense. The tune has such a big message shooting out against corruption and violence and is wrapped into a WICKED I-Grade riddim (more on that in a minute). Big tune in all and it might take a few spins to grow on you but definitely give it just that. Then things go even bigger. The KNOCK on the next tune Do Good is downright LEGENDARY at this point with the drum beating just as hard as Ancient King himself. You simply have to hear the song to get the real feel but its definitely worth checking for. Nah bow is another very I-Grade sounding vibes (this one I actually recognize from somewhere) and it plays a fine, yet understated backdrop to Ancient King’s REFUSAL to step his style back for any reason as he shoots right on through firing as you would expect. The last two of the first six are MASSIVE and the Conquering Sound’s best altogether. Battlefield Marshall is LETHAL to corruption and violence and utter nastiness everywhere and shows just how effective can the King can be. It makes way for the album’s biggest single shot, the SCATHING Access Psychologically. This one has been CRAZY for years for me. The highlight hear being that Ancient King gets about as deep lyrically as he can (at least insofar as I’ve heard him) which is VERY impressive as he warns us to REALLY look at someone thus accessing them psychologically) to learn their true intent and not just what they’re presenting AND he maintains the fire. Something Capleton, Sizzla and Anthony B have done effortlessly for years but very few others have had success in recreating. Mission accomplished Ancient King: HUGE tune.

What’s kind of strange here is that Tippy and company have definitely created the aforementioned ‘I-Grade sound’ and it’s not full blown on Conquering Sound. Instead, they impressively adjusted to the artist, offering him heavier and faster vibed compositions which really increases the quality of the album. This is more scene in the beginning and particularly at the end when things get downright DARK, right up Ancient King’s alley apparently. Check back-to-back shots Heading For Failure and Here It Comes. These two songs have an even more different kind of style as Ancient King, at times, drifts into a Hip-Hop cadence (which Is a good thing here), especially on Here It Comes and for its part, Heading For Failure is a much more DARKER vibed piece from anything I’ve heard from I-Grade to this point (and it features the typical Tippy/Tuff Lion combination playing on it as well). The long titled Faith, Courage and A Just Cause also has an unusual vibes but it also has a built in ‘excuse’ of sorts as it is the third of three official combinations, this time with the always odd Vaughn Benjamin who is apparently a very good friend of the King’s. Benjamin, to my ears, dominates the tune (master of the weird) but the two definitely make a nice combination on the KNOCKING tune. Of course that’s not to say that Ancient King completely avoids much of the standard I-Grade route which he ‘drives’ almost completely through the middle portion of Conquering Sound. Check the LUSH She’s So Awesome which I originally had left for dead (you can’t sound like this and make a solid lover’s tune) but the tune takes a much more lyrical turn than the expected ‘moody’ type of vibes which usually pervade songs like this for the most part. The tune St. Croix Run Red rides the same LOVELY riddim which backs the aforementioned Pressure Busspipe’s combination with Yahadanai, Best Thing (on the latter’s stirring One Atonement album *see here*) and although Ancient King doesn’t reach those HUGE levels, he does quite well with an obvious Vaughn Benjamin singing backup throughout. Children Of The World is a decent tune with another familiar vibes and features an unknown songstress Empress Michel (who also sings backup on the title track) from out of the States. She compliments the King quite well and nicely levels off the vibes on what is one of the better tunes on the album altogether. And finally, Ancient King’s Conquering Sound ends with a more familiar I-Grade vibes with JAH (apparently making up for the taking up of title allocation words from the tune which immediately precedes it) and Wake Up & Live Up. JAH is a very nice tune on its own but whatever that riddim is behind Wake Up is absolutely SPARKLING and downright hypnotizing to a degree. Both tunes carry a heavy message (and probably from a lyrical point-of-view JAH is stronger) and both provide a very nice leveling of the vibes to end an album which at times threaten to overwhelm the listener with an edge by an artist who doesn’t seem to moderate or limit himself too well in the helpful hands of producers and players of instruments who apparently know how to do just that.

Overall, its quite interesting that, in retrospect, as active as Ancient King (apparently now renaming himself (again) Incient King) has remained, I haven’t been REALLY into what he has been doing. In 2008, he released his sophomore album, the very unimpressive Judgement and tunes here and there (he is even present with two tunes on Midnite’s most recent release, the stirringly ODD To Mene) which have featured Ancient King engaging in PURE yelling as opposed to the skilled fiery chenter he is on Conquering Sound. So perhaps that is an even greater statement to the power of his debut and also Tippy and company as those who so CLEARLY gotten the best out of the artist. The album is recommended to fans of MODERN Roots Reggae both new and old. With the connections to be drawn to Capleton, still being quite obvious in my opinion, you have to maintain that one area where Ancient King hasn’t proven himself, as of yet, is CONSISTENCY at that level. Should he get to back to doing what made Conquering Sound nearly special and so well received anytime soon, he may have conquered that art as well.

Rated 4/5 stars
I Grade Records

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Filling Da Void: A Review of Chuck Fenda: Live In San Francisco

As much as I obviously love the medium of albums and singles for music, I will always admit and agree that the greatest form of presenting music is live and in person. When you take an artist and give them the platform to deliver music that they slaved hours and hours to make sound so nice that so many people will enjoy it and support it, LIVE, it destroys the rather impersonal nature of vibes that listening to a CD or a radio inherently presents. Also, after that performance, many people (myself DEFINITELY included) gain a fuller appetite for a song which they previously may not have enjoyed at all. In Reggae and Caribbean music specifically this also applies and, and a grander scale, perhaps even more so. Still, as much as I may complain about the title, our music is often deemed ‘exotic’ or the ever-present ‘world’ category, therefore, when you have a performance on any type of larger scale than usual, almost EVERY time out, you’ll make new fans of the music. Case and point, almost any time there’ll be a Reggae artist of any stature performing on any type of international television show, you’ll see a reaction locally due to many people abroad being impressed and such a thing, although commonplace for artists of many other genres, Caribbean music seems to respond differently (for the better) for such unfortunately rare opportunities. So should you want to make a friend previously ‘unaffected’ by Reggae music, check the current tour schedules for some of the bigger artists at any given time. Now, being that the situation, I’ve often made the case that it is STRANGELY unusual that because Reggae music LIVE has such an prevailingly GOOD affect on people and with definitely steady stream in which Reggae albums are released, we have so very few live albums released these days. I’d go as far as to make the case that with, re-issues and just first time projects of new and old shows, today we STILL have more old artists pushing with live albums while modern artists seeking to do the same have so very few options. And don’t get me started on Soca. I think it’s definitely an under utilized piece as can you possibly imagine what type of affect a live album/DVD from someone like Elephant Man might do if given proper promotion? Even Beenie man has yet (to my memory) to have a LARGE live album released, despite the fact that his stage presence is probably about as commanding as anything you’d see on Broadway tonight. The Dancehall live album is pretty much GONE (if it ever was here in the first place) (and it wasn’t) which is a real shame (Ninja Man!), however, for those of us willing to go a bit further, on the Roots side things are stirring and have been for awhile.

Critics will always say things like “good Roots Reggae has left Jamaica and gone to the Virgin Islands” and “good lover’s rock has left Jamaica and gone to England”, both of which aren’t true under the surface but I have FULL confidence in saying that the modern Reggae live album now lives in the state California. 2b1 Multimedia has the Reggae live album on LOCK! Period, the San Francisco based label is definitely not the most active by any means but just in the last year or so have RIDICULOUSLY released live albums for relatively new artists I Wayne and Lutan Fyah. Add to that the fact that within the same period of time, they pushed what was arguably the finest Reggae album of any time in 2008, Africa, from the aforementioned Mr. Fyah. Credentials like that alone would definitely make 2b1 one of the more well reputed labels of the moment but, as Reggae labels tend to come and go, its VERY refreshing know that they have been doing the exact same thing for years; well over a decade at this point. As I believe I said in reviewing another of their releases: They’re ‘threatening’ to become a SERIOUS player in Reggae music (and the case could be made that they are already) but I kind of hope that they stay kind of set in their ‘niche’ releasing predominately live albums with the occasional BIG studio release like Africa. Besides both Lutan Fyah albums and I-Wayne currently bubbling around the time (Africa was reportedly VERY commercially successful) and the rather forgotten detail that they’ve recently gone digital, previously existing as a physical product releasing only company (and hopefully they’ll tap into their back catalogue someday as well, with MANY strong products in the 2b1 vaults, including live albums from Capleton, Luciano, Junior Kelly and a ton of others (including LADY SAW of all people)) the fine people at 2b1 continue their ascent with products like this one. The artist in question here today is someone who two years ago or so you just COULDN’T IMAGINE having a live album as there seemed to be not only a great call for such a thing but no one willing to make the move in doing such a product but this label is apparently going after the hardcore heads. Well they’re doing a GREAT job. Why release a Chuck Fenda live album? He isn’t regarded as having one of the greatest stage shows in the game (although he is very good) but then again neither were Fyah or I-Wayne. Chuck Fenda, like those wonderful artists, is simply one of the most solid artists in the game so to answer the question: Why a Chuck Fenda live album? Why not. Fenda is amongst a group of artist to emerge in the Roots arena (although he is older) who are PROVEN hitmakers in Reggae, year in and year out he brings big tunes and has been doing so at this same level now for the last half decade or so. His stage show also has come along, although, to my opinion, it was never what I would call BAD actually but it now matches the fiery chanter he is on his music. The former Dancehall head born in New York, also retains that hard ‘edge’ to a degree and it most often will come across live and in person. On albums, Fenda currently has two out, the EXCELLENT Better Days from 2004 and 2007’s WICKED and underrated The Living Fire, both of which were received very well and definitely upped his international status. Now, 2b1 brings forth Chuck Fenda: Live In San Francisco, an album definitely different but one befitting one of the most talented and CONSISTENT Roots artists on the modern scene. Just as we’ve come to expect from them.

If you’re a fan of Chuck Fenda’s already, like myself, you’ll definitely recognize quite a few nice and popular tunes as expected. In this performance (like most of his, I would imagine) Fenda covers pretty much most of his hits from recent years and sounds in very fine form throughout which is reflected by the high crowd energy and participation at the venue, Club Six, also (at least at the start). Beginning Chuck Fenda’s Live In San Francisco is just a brief but INTENSE taste of his hit from a couple of years back on Christopher Birch’s Stage Time riddim, Cyan Cool which definitely gets the crowd’s attention and it’ll get yours as well as Fenda just gives a verse or so to get things lit before wheeling it up and heading into the next tune. Chuck Fenda doesn’t wait very long at all to call in the heavy artillery and delivers his MASSIVE hit, the controversial Gash Dem which flattens Club Six. Its always nice when an artist can go somewhere and have the audience really KNOW the song and with Gash Dem, Club Six, at times, threaten to drown out Fenda’s own vocals with their big response to the tune (even on the verses). Gash Dem sounds EXCELLENT here and is performed so well that its definitely my choice as the finest piece you’ll find on Fenda’s Live In San Francisco. Fenda tackles the Blaze riddim (biggup Pow Pow Movements) to close out the wicked opening of his set, with a nice rendition of the BIG Poor People Cry from back in the 5th Elements days of Fenda, Richie Spice and Anthony Cruz from the Poor People’s Defendah. He also ends the tune with a speech throwing it to the next one, which is a performance not to be missed.

From the way its presented if you wanted to say that All About Da Weed is the biggest performance here, I wouldn’t put up too much of a fuss. The tune begins halfway before the previous track runs its course with Fenda relaying a story of how he was pulled over and declared himself a “marijuana tree!”. This is a nice example of what I mean by how a performance can make you like a tune as I had to go back and draw on the Truths & Rights riddim for the nice studio version of the tune (and he even ends things by drawing on a tune from his good friend Richie Spice, Youths So Cold). Chuck Fenda fans will know every lyric on every tune as he just rolls through the hits. Jah Is Worthy over the EPIC Hard Times riddim sounds so nice and it keeps the crowd in nicely (despite a music fumble). I do have to say that the biggest disappointment on the show comes when Fenda reaches arguably his biggest hit to date, I Swear, where both he and the crowd inexplicably so to go into energy defunct. It comes too close to the beginning to be a matter of physical fatigue and both show energy afterwards, so I’m just calling I Swear a bad pull UNFORTUNATELY. Fenda and crowd seem to have things back together on the VERY NEXT TUNE as he dives into Murderer perhaps a little too briefly but things are leveled nicely as he continues to bring the big tunes. Haffi Win was a BIG tune and probably one of his most underrated (Better Days album) definitely and it sounds pretty good here as well but probably not as good as it could’ve or should’ve. Herbalist Farmer, a quite recent effort from Kemar ‘Flava’ McGregor’s WICKED Drop It riddim probably has the best audio on the set and it just comes through so nice, definitely one of the show’s highlights there. Fenda even goes solo on the combination tune Coming Over Tonight (The Living Fire album), sans Cherine Anderson (who might make for a pretty nice live album 2b1) and it comes across quite well also. Of course you would have LOVED if Ms. Anderson made an appearance but Fenda does nicely by himself. Speaking of BY HIMSELF, Fenda’s BIG anthem for the mothers of the world, Oh Mama (Better Days album), comes through on this set with no music, a cappella style and is very nice and it reaches the audience nicely as well. I didn’t too much like chasing that one with Oh My Lord, which comes on an acoustic vibes, I think he should’ve ran the vibes back up and he honestly takes too long to do that for my tastes as neither Freedom Of Speech nor Material Things (STRONG tunes) get that energy back up (although Freedom Of Speech is very well received as it always is, I‘m sure). That role is serviced when the KNOCKING Better Days comes through and begins the final stretch of the show. Better Days is another tune like Haffi Win in that it definitely received its fair share of popularity, but to my ears, its every bit as strong as pretty much ANYTHING you’ll find in Fenda’s catalogue so far. Never Si Dis [Yet] is another strong piece and it resonates well here as it sounds EXCELLENT and you should definitely track down the studio version of that BIG tune which is one of Fenda’s more lyrically impressive outings and the performance features a surprise vibe or two. One of the better pieces right there. The fact that you can slow down and still keep the vibes up is reinforced by the presence of the LOVELY God Is My Witness across the Lava Splash riddim which is very nice in its brevity as is the show closer, Rough Out Deh (Better Days). This one is performed across a different riddim than the studio version and after a bit, it sounds so nice. Fenda himself doesn’t go so hard after the tune (like he should’ve) but I LOVE that song and you couldn’t flop it if you tried. And the same could be said about any Chuck Fenda performance, including this one.

I do have to say that throughout Chuck Fenda: Live In San Francisco and PROBABLY in most of his performances in general (although I’ve seen him perform several times and haven’t noticed it but never with him having as much time as here), he uses the pretty ‘standard’ call and response technique of, “Lemme hear you say whoa!. . . Say yeah. . .” and that definitely wears thin here to the point where later on you’ll feel inclined to skip ahead a bit (luckily almost every time he does it, its not during an actual song, but a wheel.

Overall, like the I-Wayne piece, Live In Oakland, Chuck Fenda: Live In San Francisco is not the BEST you’ll see from the artist, however, it is by no means a bad show. Fenda (nor I-Wayne) do those type of things to my knowledge. And with the rarity (until 2b1 began this ’streak’) of something like this, you’re more appealing to the hardcore heads who just like the idea of such a release and are far more likely to have seen the artist or just know the full range of power of the vibes. I myself have to say that I just LOVE the idea of taking so many modern artists and giving them an opportunity to have a live album in their catalogues. Next up for 2b1 is apparently Turbulence and Ky-mani Marley of all people and Fenda himself may be back later in 2009 with a studio release for genre leading VP Records (and if it happens it will be one of the year’s most anticipated projects definitely). But here, what you have is a nice shout for the loyal fans and I’m enjoying the vibes with the live albums. Now 2b1 just give me Cherine Anderson, Lutan Fyah again, Jah Mason, Spice, Chezidek, Buju, Assassin. . .

Rated 3/5 stars
2b1 Multimedia Inc.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Vault Reviews: 2 Strong by Sizzla & Anthony B

For better or for worse there are several different and rather prominent pairs of artists in Reggae music who seemingly will forever be linked together for one reason or another. Be it a matter of unique circumstances, association, the time frame which they rose to prominence or something as simple as where they are from, nearly EVERY single leading artist on the scene will have an artist to which their career will be linked and sometimes, depending on the artist in particular, there is more than one link for a single artist. Of course, the most well known and typically the most relied upon in the current era is that of Beenie Man and Bounty Killer. Their WELL tired ‘on again-off again’ feud/agreement can actually be seen as the single most impacting situation in the Dancehall in the past twenty years or so. Their feud takes away the spotlight from other artists when its blazing and suddenly, when they appear to be on good terms, you’ll notice that those are the spaces when the doors open and we get BIG new artists. An example of that would be another pair of artists who will enter the ages as “Do you remember him?’, “Oh yeah, it was him and that other guy”, would be Assassin and Vybz Kartel. Even before they get to being paired with each other, you have to link them to the artists who helped aid them in their early careers and development; that being Assassin to Spragga Benz and Kartel with the aforementioned Bounty Killer. However, that being said, just as we were asking ourselves about five years ago who we thought was the wickedest between the two (and most should have been saying Kartel at the time) we are right now (and most should be saying Assassin) and twenty years from now, we will still be asking ourselves. More still, you can look at the Roots side of things and take for example the rather BURGEONING case of Queen Ifrica. Of course the most direct and obvious connection to be drawn on the genius from out of Montego Bay is to her mentor and ‘boss’ Tony Rebel (himself linked to a few different artists) who gave her, her first big break and continues to guide her. However, I predict that years from now Ifrica will be linked to another future Queen, Etana, as the two rose as two POWERFUL feminine Roots Reggae voices at roughly the same time. You could also look at pairings like Jimmy Riley and his son Tarrus (for VERY obvious reasons), Luciano and Mikey General, Batch and Ras Attitude and the lines go on and on. Dating back to something like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh and both with Bunny Wailer and even beyond, Reggae music seems to travel quite well in pairs doesn’t it?

And that may explain the two cases in question here and maybe even one more. In terms of Roots Reggae music over the past decade, one could DEFINITELY make the ‘three headed monster’ presentation of Sizzla, Capleton and Anthony B. Now, more times the two of this trio that you’ll see drawn together are Sizzla and Capleton. Why? I’ve always maintained the reason this was is because they are the most popular and the most sensational and the most controversial as where Anthony B isn’t (USUALLY) those things. However, if you REALLY scrutinize it, the two who have the most in common are definitely Sizzla and Anthony B. First of all, Capleton is a bit older, he’s nearly a decade older than both of the other two (almost nine years exactly to the day older than Sizzla) who were both born within less than a month of each other. That also would seemingly mean (and it does) that Capleton came about a lot earlier and thus, enjoyed quite an ‘extended’ period early in his career as a rough and tough Dancehall artist during the 1980’s when both Sizzla and Anthony B would have been young teenagers at the very oldest. Also, and perhaps most importantly, although they did so in different ‘houses’ both Sizzla and Anthony B ‘grew’ as artists in similar situations, under label heads Phillip ‘Fattis’ Burrell at Xterminator for Sizzla, likewise Richard ‘Bello’ Bell for Anthony B at his label, Star Trail. Both artist would record for both labels at about the same time during their development (and literally at the same time), both did so as relatively ‘newer’ members of the Bobo Ashanti order of Rastafari (‘new’ in the sense that the turban clad Bobo Ashanti artist was nowhere as commonplace then as it is now) and both were making their names making the same type of music and would ultimately cross paths SO MANY times that the link that I’m making now isn’t very difficult at all. So maybe it’s a bit odd that I can rack my brain trying to think of albums on which Sizzla and Anthony B appeared and I come up with MANY but only one which features ONLY the two. Luckily, that one came quite awhile back in the form of the EXCELLENT 2 Strong release from Bello and company at Anthony B’s then home base label, Star Trail. Of course, Star Trail was the label on which Anthony B would grow to establish his name and reputation and EASILY one of the most SKILLED artists on the Roots scene and despite the fact that Sizzla and Capleton have received more buzz through the years, one could very easily make the claim that it is the Trelawny native who has been the most consistent and definitely sans controversy and scandal and just critique in general than his two SLIGHTLY more famous peers. That being said, as is evident on 2 Strong, Bello, despite the fact that he certainly has made questionable moves and decisions through the years (more on that at the end) was conscious, for better or worse, to voice many of the talents at the time regardless of their origins and kind of, in that, built a strong catalogue for several artists with Sizzla DEFINITELY being amongst his very favourite obviously, outside of Anthony B. This also occurred during a period, in building the 2 Strong album, which is widely regarded as VINTAGE era of both artists. The result is an album which has become largely, in my opinion, one of the more underrated compilations of the modern era as it not only was a STRONG time for both, it featured, for the most part, tunes that weren’t DOMINATING at the time. 2 Strong indeed.

There was a series by the name of Toe To Toe from the once mighty Jet Star which was set up like this one, with two artists alternating tracks and Sizzla was featured at least twice, alongside Capleton and even Junior Kelly. However, 2 Strong is unfortunately still the only (to my knowledge) featuring Anthony B and Sizzla together. The album is situated with the two alternating tracks with Sizzla taking the first (and thus odd numbered tunes) and then Anthony B, so I’ll deal with Sizzla’s tunes first. The very young version of Sizzla you’ll hear on 2 Strong was simply one of the most powerful and damn near PERFECT voices Reggae has ever seen and all of his efforts are strong. There’s a pretty good chance if you don’t own 2 Strong or haven’t vibed it that you have NEVER heard his first offering here, the KNOCKING Food Of Thought. This tune has snuck and snuck between the cracks and below the radars as it is absolutely MASSIVE! If you are fond of the Sizzla from ten years ago as he had yet to be influenced by the rigors of the business and had his consistency still well intact (which basically means, your ears work properly) then you NEED to hear Food Of Thought and were there not a STERLING representation of him at his absolute best, Food Of Thought would be the best tune here. HUGE opening. Sizzla next checks in with the very solid Lovely Life which has kind of a ‘funky’ spin on it. But definitely don’t give up on it during the first minute or so as, even though the vibe remains, Sizzla delivers a nice and understated message on top of it which, if you pay DEEP enough attention, almost renders Lovely Life a BRILLIANT a cappella tune. Do Some Good is probably the second (or third) most popular tune from Sizzla on 2 Strong altogether as it has become quite well known over the years (it also appeared Sizzla’s first Reggae Max album from Jet Star). Its not one of my favourites here but its all but impossible to make that version of Kalonji sound bad. The standout and most popular tune from Sizzla and on 2 Strong in full is definitely the IMPERIAL Holding Firm. One of the best tunes in Sizzla’s downright obese catalogue of tunes, Holding Firm is one of the most underrated and undervalued also. This tune ranks alongside those BIG classic tunes of the time like Mek Dem Secure, Dem A Gaze, One Away, Black Woman & Child and the likes and with that cast, its remarkable to say that he has arguably never sounded so PERFECT. And you know it. Kalonji also comes in with Live Yu Live which rolls through on an addictive bounce of a riddim that he works effortlessly and his final effort comes on the very strange but WICKED Haunted & Nervous which rides a kind of convoluted version of the same piece Anthony B used for his classic tune Swarm Me. Haunted & Nervous COMPLICATEDLY calls out the corrupt in every shadow and under every rock under which they may exist. Of course I’m HIGHLY partial but Sizzla remains SPARKLING throughout his half of 2 Strong.

Of course that’s not to say Anthony B doesn’t shine also because he does as he always did for Bello, the producer who got the best out of him. That is evident IMMEDIATELY as Anthony B gives his best effort on 2 Strong right off the bat with a remix of one of his better tunes, Damage. This version is a bit more souped-up with horns and such sounds (you can find the original on the MASSIVE Universal Struggle album) but the vocal arrangements largely remain the same and that downright hypnotic chant was the main attraction and it remains so on the WICKED remix definitely (and you watch that song. TEARS man!). Next in from the original fire man is the simplistically uplifting vibes of The Joy. This one rides a very similar riddim to Sizzla’s Do Some Good tune which it precedes and Anthony does a better job that Kalonji does with it actually. The Joy is just SO straight forward though, so Roots heads, you’ll eat it up. Shining Light is a tune which had a bit of luster surrounding it, I can remember going back home and hearing someone (who wasn’t Anthony B, I’m pretty sure) singing it at a stage show somewhere and getting a pretty nice reaction from it and its kind of been lost through the years but it still sounds so fine if you should dig up 2 Strong. Anthony B’s next tune after Shining Light is just HUGE and ends up running quite close to the Damage remix as his finest on the album altogether, Higher Heights. This tune is HEAVY! Higher Heights is definitely for the spiritually minded and meditative kind (myself included) and may actually be one of the better tunes in Anthony B’s catalogue which is saying a great deal. Watch Out is a later tune on 2 Strong from Anthony B which will definitely require quite a bit of patience getting through as it takes awhile to grow on you. This is mainly due to Anthony’s approach in my opinion as it’s a tune on a pretty ‘different’ sounding riddim (but still one really within the landscape of still being considered Reggae to my opinion) and he delivers on it with something much more on a rapper’s cadence for the most part. Its not a lost cause altogether (like Musical Fire is) but, like I said, give it a few spins before casting it aside. And finally, Anthony B ends his set and the 2 Strong album in full with the very familiar Praise The Man. The song isn’t his best work and I even think he would admit that. However, the vibes on this one are just SO SWEET that it has quietly remained somewhat present throughout the years in some form or another (I think I’ve even heard it in a studio form on a different riddim actually). Praise The Man becomes an EXCELLENT and fitting way to send out this mighty album - in praise of His Majesty.

Overall, the interesting thing about 2 Strong is that should you be searching for an original printing version of the CD or the vinyl, then GOOD LUCK! However, Richard Bell, ever the shrewd (and sometimes VICIOUS) businessman has kept it in rotation (reportedly, Anthony B claimed that although he had an official deal with Bello, that he never received ANY royalties for tunes like Raid Di Barn, Damage, Swarm Me or even his MAMMOTH shot Fire Pon Rome, all done for the producer). Nowadays, luckily you can get at it digitally which is quickly becoming a fantastic way to keep seemingly otherwise lost albums like this out there for the masses, with Bello having even gone that way with most of Anthony B’s early catalogue also. 2 Strong is recommended STRICTLY for established fans of modern Roots Reggae. You, like me will look at this one much like a collector’s item as I have kept it in high esteem in my catalogue for years now. If you haven’t heard it, there are tunes you probably don’t recall from anywhere else, or you simply haven’t heard in a lifetime and for that reason, its valuable to you. What the album is, figuratively speaking, is a rare look at the early ‘editions’ of two future Kings, in a princely state. Too strong? Not quite. But EASILY strong enough.

Rated 4.5/5 stars
Star Trail [Zojak - Digital]
1998 [2008]