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]

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