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