Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sweetness In Excess: A Review of Riddim Driven: Sweet by Various Artists

As much as I will continue to make the case for the current modern era of Reggae music being arguably just as strong as any other, I do have to admit that there are certain limitations to it. Even the staunchest and most modern-partial researcher (like yours truly) would have to admit that eras of our music gone have had aspects to them which are either COMPLETELY gone, or, as in this case, calibrated to a far lesser degree than they previously were. One of these aspects in my opinion would DEFINITELY be the love song. The love song in Reggae and specifically in Jamaican Reggae once enjoyed a very lofty status as you had full on acts which concentrated on the advancement of the love song and, by extension, an entire Reggae subgenre by the name of Lover’s Rock Reggae. Artists like legendaries John Holt and Gregory Isaacs would spend rather large amounts of time concentrating on the genre in their heydays and even past that, when they would turn their attentions to other types of music (specifically of the socially conscious nature) they were never too far from dropping a HUGE, yet expected love song. Even besides that, you had artists like Bob Marley, Horace Andy and others (like Dennis Brown) who, although they didn’t reach the love tune in the way of a Holt of Isaacs, they could also turn such a tune into a hit and do so on a consistent basis which was (at least in my opinion) an indication of their SKILL in the genre and not just a sort of a VERY BROAD indication of their (undeniable) popularities at the time. Of course there were others like Sugar Minott and especially Ken Boothe who would take Jamaican Lover’s Rock to heights it hadn’t previously seen and definitely not seen since. Since then? Things have changed. Apart from the kind of one off album and kind of ‘one off’ artist like Glen Washington, George Nooks and of course Sanchez and Beres Hammond (all of whom, incidentally, are in their forties and fifties and I mention them because they WONDERFULLY have enjoyed arguably their greatest peaks in terms of popularity either now or within the last decade or so) there haven’t been very many artists who have CONSISTENTLY committed to making GOOD love tunes. Thankfully, like most rules, this one too has an exception. And no, I definitely don’t mean Sizzla’s rather odd howling based love numbers (although occasionally they are good, though you’ll do yourself a favour in avoiding his love tune album, 2008’s BAD Addictive) or Turbulence’s CONSISTENTLY uninspired efforts (and some of them are good also, although RARELY). So for those of you seeking the modern Reggae love song who have abandoned Jamaica in favour of the much more lover’s friendly UK with people like (the WICKED) Bitty McLean, Peter Hunnigale, Peter Spence and others; perhaps its time to come back to Jamaica (did you see what I did there???).

When you do come back, I’ll introduce you someone like Alaine who rather quietly has become the FACE of modern love tunes from out of Jamaica with HITS like No Ordinary Love, Heavenly, Rise In Love, Sacrifice and the list goes on and on. Alaine, leads a list of solid artist who show GOOD consistent efforts on the love song like Jah Cure, Da’Ville to an even greater degree, LUST and Tarrus Riley and she also perhaps is owed a credit for turning SUPER producer Don Corleone’s ears and attentions to the love tune as well, evident by the fact that MOST of her big hits have been produced by Corleone and he has done the same thing for others. Now, ANY time you can get a CERTIFIED BIG producer in the game to turn his/her attention to ANYTHING musically speaking, whatever it is, will undoubtedly receive a great big jolt in terms of activity and popularity. Well, welcome the jolt. My choice as the best damn Reggae producer in the world altogether, the WICKED Kemar ‘Flava’ McGregor now brings forth his latest masterpiece, the Sweet riddim on VP Records’ famed Riddim Driven series. If I recall correctly, the Sweet becomes McGregor’s first full blown lover’s rock composition but, in my opinion, its not something which so greatly steps outside of what he has been doing previously. McGregor’s inherent style is making these rather LARGE sounding, yet SIMPLE and straight forward one-drop riddims which so EASILY lend themselves to love songs as opposed to Corleone (even though its become more and more expected from him these days) whose background includes riddims like the Krazy, the French Vanilla and the Mad Guitar which DEFINITELY don’t sound like anything you’d ever catch someone like Beres Hammond voicing. And that’s why, in my opinion, you’ll find McGregor’s catalogue literally saturated with STRONG love tunes here and there like Norris Man’s very well done tune Love You from the Trumpet riddim (big riddim which backed Nesbeth’s MASSIVE tune Board House), Prestige’s solid Feelings Inside from the Flute, a whole heap of tunes from the Key Riddim (which was probably the closest to the Sweet as it had quite a few love songs) and I could definitely go on and on, probably peaking with Beres Hammond’s MASSIVE tune I Surrender over McGregor’s ‘edgy’ Drop It riddim from. Now, Kemar McGregor comes with his (by my count) third effort for Riddim Driven, following the VERY GOOD Rock Steady and the HUGE Rub-A-Dub, probably his best piece to date (which is saying quite a bit in the face of the MONSTER that was the Triumphant riddim), with the Sweet riddim. Again, I’ll stress it because I think its important to those who haven’t heard it who may look at the Sweet as some type of ‘experiment’ or such. It isn’t. I don’t think McGregor is capable, frankly, of making a bad riddim and while the Sweet is definitely unique, like I said it isn’t SO FAR away from his previously BRILLIANT range so fans of McGregor and his No Doubt label will definitely want to tune in. And, if you’re the type of casual Reggae or even R&B fan just looking for something SWEET on the Reggae side to listen with your special someone, I think you may have just found it.

Besides the riddim itself, which is LOVELY, the big attraction with the Sweet riddim album is, of course, the rather varied group of vocalists Kemar McGregor chooses to voice it. There is a VERY healthy mix of elder artists and veterans with newer names and up and comers who all give the vibes a very nice blend in full. Beginning No Doubt’s Sweet Riddim Driven album is four of those elder and LEGENDARY artists surrounding a future queen. The man himself, Beres Hammond’s gets the first strike on the riddim which he uses, as you would imagine, to COMPLETE PERFECTION on one of the best tunes on the riddim, See You Again. Were Hammond to not have voiced the Sweet riddim, it would have been almost criminal and I’m loving him all across No Doubt’s riddims as, to my count, he makes his second appearance following the aforementioned MIGHTY I Surrender on the Drop It. BIG opening. A case could be made, however, that Hammond and his two other peers as the top of the Sweet Riddim Driven album are outdone by a youth as what the DIVINE Etana delivers on her OUTSTANDING tune Happy Heart, pushes the Sweet to its boundaries as it similarly pushes her to use more of the ranges of her well underrated vocal abilities. Arguably an even BIGGER tune than the opening (but See You Again is SERIOUS!) (oh and we‘ll forgive Etana for her one note of autotune). Continuing the simple overabundance of talent at the beginning of the this album is the incomparable Freddie McGregor (no relation to Kemar as far as I know) who delivers one of the better tunes I’ve heard from him as of late with Keeps On Coming. This is typical Freddie McGregor and he sounds on point throughout and I also really like the not so typical nature of the tune as it kind of breaks things down to a bare necessity level in terms of the type of love its talking about. ANOTHER big tune. And lastly, I have to mention in this same streak another artist coming back from the Drop It riddim, the LEGENDARY Marcia Griffiths who comes forth with When You Giving Your Heart. Griffiths always sounds nice and this one is no different. I think this tune will kind of sneak up on people as you kind of really need to spin it more than once to get it in full but when you do, you’ll see its real power indeed. All in all, one of the strongest openings for a riddim album I’ve maybe ever heard.

Its interesting that I took this review as an opportunity to talk about the current landscape of Lover’s Rock Reggae in Jamaica and it just so happens that the CLASS of the riddim comes in the form of three tunes near the middle of the album which, of course, aren’t love songs. The first of them is, in my opinion, the best and the best you’ll find on the riddim also (but did I mention that Beres’ tune was SWEET!) as Chuck Fenda checks in with Oh Lord Forgive Them. In case you should ever forget the talent Fenda has, he gives you tunes like this every once in awhile to remind you. Oh Lord Forgive Them is does major damage on the Sweet, exemplifying what I mean about Flava’s production style as the Sweet riddim, CLEARLY a lover’s vibes, so easily translates into a straight Roots riddim in the hands of a talented enough artist like Fenda. LARGE tune and the riddim’s and album’s finest. Although if you wanted to say the uniquely vibed Ginjah had the Sweet’s best tune with his effort, Prayer, I wouldn’t put up too much of a fight. I REALLY like Ginjah’s vocal style and it definitely stands out on the Sweet riddim (as it did on the Rub-A-Dub and the Rocksteady same way). Lastly, with this style of tune, ending the matter is Stevie Face who is apparently becoming a favourite of McGregor’s (and justly so) and he also delivers one of the best tunes on his Sweet riddim with his Proverbs 6. The tune has a very nice vibes and message as it tells everyone to focus less on the material things and more His Majesty and righteousness in general. Definitely a big vibes and I’m looking forward to work from Face, Ginjah and Fenda on No Doubt riddims in the future as well. Speaking of an artist who has apparently gained McGregor’s attentions, check the aforementioned Glen Washington who makes a return from the Rocksteady with the UNDILUTED lover’s piece No One Else But You. Washington, like Hammond but on less popular frame, has MASTERED the art of the love song from the last two or three generations and, again just like Hammond, you don’t too much have to worry for the quality level of his efforts and No One Else But You is certainly no different. SHOCKINGLY, I also was rather fond of Richie Stephens’ offering on the Sweet, Hey Joe. I’m NOT AT ALL a fan of Stephens’ and rarely do I find a tune of his which I appreciate as much as Hey Joe as Stephens (very interestingly) finds himself competing for another gentleman (Joe) for the affections of a special lady (now if we could get him to ONLY voice for McGregor). And in that similar vein I’ve never really been too fond of the Morgans either as a unit but apparently things have changed as they’ve gone solo in for a bit and I’m liking most of their efforts. Both Gramps and Peetah check in on the Sweet with Still The Same and One In A Million, respectively. To my ears, Gramps’ VERY understated One In A Million is the better of the two, although both are definitely worth several spins. The closing stretch of tunes is left to the up and comers (fittingly) with Duane Stephenson’s MOVING 24 Hours being the highlight of the bunch, although Prophecy’s Life With You isn’t VERY far behind at all. And young Bridgez’ combination tune with Lukie D (the ‘L’ in the previously mentioned L.U.S.T.) Coming Home rather easily becomes the best thing I’ve heard from her to date. WONDERFULLY ending the Riddim Driven album for Kemar McGregor’s Sweet riddim is a clean version of the riddim sans vocals which is always a very nice touch and one which I believe has been missing from his two McGregor’s two previous VP releases (and I complained about it, so I’m taking at least partial credit for it!).

Overall, what more can you say? I think I run out of superlatives for explaining the lyrical genius which is Sizzla Kalonji or Tanya Stephens, or the UNIQUENESS which dominates the style of Vaughn Benjamin and I think I may be reaching that point with Kemar McGregor. Simply put, if you like Reggae music, you will LOVE EVERYTHING he has ever done. The Sweet, although it goes in a far more specific direction than probably anything he’s done to date, he does it just as well as it can be done. And because of that, even if you don’t like Reggae but are a fan of the cool side of R&B or pop music, you’ll probably LOVE this one too (and to such a fan, as I can’t imagine that you’d just pick up the entire album, you might SERIOUSLY want to think of doing just that). The Sweet riddim is near the top of what McGregor and company have done to date and should he keep it up he may single-handedly pump some well needed life into Lover’s Rock Reggae. More top notch material from the best Reggae producer on earth.

Rated 4.25/5 stars
VP Records

1 comment:

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