Friday, July 31, 2009

DAMN!: A Review of Contagious by Tarrus Riley

2009 has already had and continues to have, in my opinion, a rather significant place in the annals of Reggae music history in certain aspects. I believe, years down the line, inasmuch as people will remember, we’ll look back on successes seen by certain artists and progress made, in general, during the year both in terms of the music and in terms of status, and definitely regard it as one of the better years, certainly in recent history. Dealing specifically with albums, which is why we’re here, we’ve also seen some quite unusual set of circumstances during the year so far and with a few more guaranteed to come. First of all, DEFINITELY, worth mentioning is the fact that 2009 is a ‘Sean Paul Year’. The uptown superstar IMMEDIATELY gets a simply different level of attention than most of his peers (seriously he may be the ONLY artist on that level right now) and justly so based on his track record of crippling levels of sales for a Reggae album. Sean Paul has also had quite a bit of company on the album side already, with one rather unusual day in April standing out in particular. On the same day, both Buju Banton and Sizzla brought out their latest studio albums. These were ACTUAL albums which required DIRECT work (as opposed to kind of hammered and nailed together micro-project styled releases which aren’t too rare in Reggae music) and were fully presented, top notch projects. Both Buju’s Rasta Got Soul and Sizzla’s Ghetto Youth-Ology, respectively, were also quite important in the overall landscape of Reggae music. As two top scale artist on the hierarchy of the music, it almost seemed as if it was done somewhat intentionally however, knowing Sizzla’s rather lackadaisical approach to the actual timing of such things, I’m going to (rather safely) assume that he didn’t intentionally try to flop Buju or just confuse Reggae fans. With the level of both artists and their overall appeal to Reggae fans of all degrees all around the world, that day, April 21st, was definitely a very important one to remember for now and for the future. You’ll also be able to add to that the one week before when Reggae’s ‘hidden weapon’ Jah Cure made his debut for his own Danger Zone/SoBe Entertainment base label with the BG Universal Cure, by far his highest profile release to date. Jah Cure’s own appeal worldwide, although not probably where it will be by time he releases his next album, is already VERY big, given his projection at this time but the Cure’s music is a BIG deal and therefore amongst anyone who likes Reggae, and a little beyond even his material is big news. And, fittingly, I also have to mention Mavado who saw his own profile raise a bit with the release of his sophomore album, A Better Tomorrow, which road the strength of his HUGE single, So Special. All big releases (even if all weren’t necessarily BIG in terms of quality) and all significant and rather powerful statements and testaments to the strength of Reggae music in 2009.

Its interesting, however, that in the cases of Sean Paul, Buju Banton and Sizzla ESPECIALLY and MAYBE even Jah Cure, given his ‘interesting’ back story, you could make the statement that the attention with them is NOW. Meaning that they are, in fact, the PRESENT and the past of Reggae music but not so much the future (again, Jah Cure is a different case). With Mavado things are definitely different just as they are for one Queen Ifrica who made her VP Records debut earlier this year with her OUTSTANDING sophomore release, Montego Bay. Ifrica is one part of the ‘Holy Trinity’ of new and exciting young Roots artists (a lot of people also add Duane Stephenson to that list although I consider him a half step back from the other three at this point) alongside ‘The Strong One’, Etana and the man of the hour, Tarrus Riley who TANGIBLY comprise the FUTURE of Roots Reggae music in Jamaica along with a few others (like I-Octane) but they have definitely received the most attention. Now, all three of these artists, of course, have their strengths and all three are currently enjoying such a high level of popularity but Riley, in terms of popularity and attention, appears to have risen to the top of that pack (in terms of SKILL, I’d go with Ifrica and in terms of potential and presentation, its Etana all day). Why? Well, first of all to be PERFECTLY honest, the stereotypical ‘leader’ of Roots Reggae music, tracing all the way back to Bob Marley between Buju, Ziggy Marley, and now with Sizzla Capleton etc., they’ve always been MALE. And to continue to support that tired trend of looking for ‘the next Bob Marley’, I think that has a bit to do with it. Also, with Riley’s history, the son of Reggae veteran Jimmy Riley (Ifrica also has such a background however) and the fact that based on look alone he seems to epitomize the look of neo Roots Reggae singer. Which makes this a HUGE deal on its own (oh and never mind the fact that he’s WICKED!), as The Chosen One, Tarrus Riley now delivers his much anticipated third album, Contagious, following his sleeper Challenges from 2004 (which VP re-released last year) and the WILDLY popular Parables from late 2006. Parables literally put the man on the map as it seemed to grow and grow in popularity as did the artist himself, now placing himself, rather easily amongst the very top Roots artists in the game and one of the most sought after names worldwide as he continues to push his vibes to the very top of and maybe even someday beyond, Reggae music. Contagious is an album almost perfectly constructed for the moment as it is BEAUTIFUL! There are going to be quite a few new sets of eyes on this one, those who caught on with the She’s Royal and Lion Paw fame and are now somewhere saying ‘that cool ass Jamaican guy has a new album out’ and they might even be more impressed this time around. Given the potential to SOLIDIFY his name as the FACE of Jamaican Roots Reggae and even take said Roots Reggae internationally perhaps with a LONG future to come, I don’t think it’s a stretch at all to call Contagious the most important Reggae album of 2009. And you know what - Its one of the best too!

Just as on Challenges and Parables, Contagious is primarily ran by legendary Reggae artist/saxophonist/musician/arranger/songwriter/producer/engineer/whatever, Dean Fraser. Tarrus Riley also links with a few other producers as well. It is built, also, with quite a bit of new and never before heard material (all of which just happens to be VERY very good). One of the year’s most anticipated album’s, Tarrus Riley’s Contagious gets off to a WONDERFUL start with one of the newer tunes, Living The Life Of A Gun. BIG! The song has an old school kind of ‘swinging’ riddim to it and Riley uses it to deliver a SPARKLING anti-violence piece. The nicest part of the tune is DEFINITELY the chorus where Riley breaks things down to the most minimal level and merely asks, “What dem make gun fah?”. GOOD question. Even better tune and start. Up next is a tune which has “HIT” written all over it and one which is clearly one of the better on the album, the MAMMOTH shot that is I Sight. This one is simply special. I can’t imagine the Roots Reggae fan who wouldn’t like it and probably even more. The tune, for me, is one which EASILY characterizes who Tarrus Riley is as an artist as it just shows him off to his absolute best and you DEFINITELY expect to hear that one playing quite frequently in the not too distant future (if no one else plays it, you will. Trust me). Concluding the opening bit to Tarrus Riley’s Contagious is essentially the title track and one on which he pays tribute to the first of two fallen legends, Love’s Contagious, which plays across Bob Marley’s timeless Coming In From The Cold riddim. The tune is another which definitely has big potential to be BIG in the ways of She’s Royal and the likes and just like I Sight, you can probably expect Love’s Contagious to be spinning quite a bit for quite awhile (and I’ve already heard it starting actually). SEAMLESS opening.

And then there’s the BOOM! Of course you’ll notice two of the three RIDICULOUS combinations and one the other cover song here. Just glancing on paper, they stick out. HOWEVER! I find myself about once a year adding a tune which will become one of my favourites EVER and Tarrus Riley may have just gotten that one in for 2009. King Selassie H.I.M. is HUGE! I cried like a very small child the first, second and third times I heard this song and if I waited a minute, I’d probably start crying now because I’m listening to it right now! It is absolutely special in everyway as Tarrus Riley gives praise to His Majesty of EPIC proportions for six minutes (and not to mention the genuinely HILARIOUS interlude which follows it). SPECIAL tune and the best Contagious has to offer. Period. Now, to those combinations: Riley (and Dean Fraser) makes an obvious effort to cover all bases so you get two such POWERFULLY polarizing combinations as you do. The first is Let Peace Reign which features the aforementioned Etana and Duane Stephenson alongside Riley and its excellent. This type of tune would, in theory, be quite generic but its not that, its actually one of the most lyrically strong on Contagious altogether and I’m not too high on the man but Stephenson does a BIG job even by comparison but all three definitely do so nice on the inspirational vibes. Another big tune. Then you look at the list and say, “Herbs Promotion featuring Demarco and Vybz Kartel”, “WHAT!”. Trust me the results make the very unusual link well worth it. The tune takes a minute to get going but it definitely gets into gear when the varied Demarco reaches the mic before turning it over to Kartel while Riley is, of course, impressive throughout. All of that being said, however, ‘lil ole’ Konshens has a claim to having the biggest tune link on Contagious as he joins in on Good Girl Gone Bad, one of the pre-releases which has a very addictive high stepping sound which is one of the best vibes here altogether. Want more? Then go back and check the suddenly quite meaningful cover of Michael Jackson’s magic tune, Human Nature. I, admittedly, wasn’t a HUGE fan of Jackson’s but this treatment, considering the circumstances is just so nice and nice on its own merits as well and I kind of hope that The King Of Pop got the opportunity to hear it before he transitioned. Soul Mate is She’s Royal 2k9 and, although it may not ultimately receive that VAST level of fame, the kind old school rub-a-dub vibes on the tune are addictive and my wife LOVES the song. Superman is AMAZING. It was probably my favourite tune on Contagious until I got to track number thirteen and it continues that sweet romantic vibes from Soul Mate (and even Human Nature to a degree) as Riley says, “I feel butterflies when I’m in your hands”, and I know the feeling. The CRAZY old school vibed Young Love has been receiving quite a bit of early attention and its all deserved definitely. If you have a special woman in your life, just loop songs three thru seven and you’ll be a happy man. The moving Start A New is a very nice previous single across Jukeboxx’ Nylon Riddim. The tune was a substantial hit for the artist (and the riddim) and is definitely one of the main attractions on the album. The curiously titled S Craving is. . . different to say the least but in a good way. Why So Much Wickedness, ESPECIALLY Don’t Judge and Stop Watch also are just so FULL sounding tunes, I can imagine albums where they would have been the definitive highlights and on Contagious they shine still but there is SO MUCH good material they may kind of be overlooked (especially Don’t Judge which is DIVINE, check the messages on that one). And just briefly, Stop Watch, which infuses the General Penitentiary riddim is also quite good (and will sound very familiar to you after the track which precedes it, in more way than one). Contagious meets in end with two more big tunes (DUH!), Mankind and It Will Come. Mankind has been getting the early buzz but I’m favoring It Will Come which, again, is quite different but BLAZING! The song could be quite personal for Tarrus Riley as he tries to explain to his woman why he continues to stick to the music despite the fact that it doesn’t seem to be profitable AT ALL. Well, should he still find himself with that woman, I’m sure she got the first copy of Contagious and loved every minute of it. It is GORGEOUS.

Overall, the first question would be if Contagious better than Parables: It is. In my opinion it demonstrates itself to be CLEARLY more consistently better than that insanely popular album and while Parables may have had more of a flare (MAY HAVE) the middle ground on Contagious is virtually inexistent as you could (and I just did) make a rather easy case of EVERY single song here being BIG. The second question would be if Contagious is the best album of the year and it may have just as much claim as the two other albums I’d put into that league (Ifrica’s Montego Bay and Nereus Joseph’s Real Rebels Can’t Die) but it doesn’t really have to be. With Tarrus Riley’s popularity having reached critical mass, Contagious is SURE to attract a great deal of attention from Reggae heads, casual fans and even people who couldn’t find Jamaican on a map. Those fans will come expecting GREAT, SENSATIONAL and SPECTACULAR. They’ll get that and then some from what may just be The Most Important Reggae Album of 2009. Period.

Rated 5/5 stars
VP Records

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