One of my very favourite topics to write about is how our music is so unfortunately castigated and belittled as being obscure and less regarded in the ‘mainstream’, despite the fact that it is rather CLEARLY the greatest form of music in the world without question. I talk about the challenges our artists face to gain the attention that they deserve in the more popular circles and how almost every time one seems to break into those communities, it generally seems more of a matter of ‘being in the right place at the right time’ rather than an artist actually grabbing the public‘s attention. Well, sadly that’s also a phenomenon which seems to exist within our own community as well and it is even more frustrating here because when dealing with people who actually KNOW WHAT THEY’RE talking about, it becomes more and more difficult to decipher and decode exactly why artists who’re clearly amongst the most talented in the world don’t receive comparable exposure and attention to some of their more popular peers. Case in point - If you read me to any degree at all, you know who my favourite artist is and you know I look forward to his releases unlike those from any other artist (even when they obviously aren’t going to be very good in some cases). Along with ‘him’ (biggup Sizzla every time), I know people who have the same affinity for Capleton’s music (lots of looking forward for you guys these days isn’t it?), Luciano, even Anthony B (finding them more and more these days) and OF COURSE for Buju Banton. If you take and accept those names as THE dominant names from this current era of Roots Reggae music, leading into the next (with Ifrica, Tarrus, Etana etc.), and you very well should, then a name which belongs in that exact same class who you’ll rarely see given that ‘territory’ in the same way is JUNIOR KELLY. In my opinion, for whatever it’s worth, Junior Kelly is a star in Reggae music - A bonafide STAR. From the way the man carries himself, to the way he presents himself and performs his music and down to his actual music itself, the man definitely has star quality. He also has the experience which is just as important and despite the fact that he may not be as superficially popular as the other names I’ve mentioned here, one would still have to qualify and register his as a ‘household name’ in Reggae music in my opinion. He has the HITS behind his name, he’s traveled the world presenting his music and he’s certainly done the work as everyone here has, so just like them, when Junior Kelly has something to say, it should be celebrated and of course Reggae fans worldwide should well take note.
Well I hope you, Reggae fan, have your pen out now because Junior Kelly has something to say and it is WELL worth hearing. Never the most active of artists and not one who seems to have a great deal in terms of consistent backing - in the way that Sizzla would have Judgment Yard or Capleton with David House - (both of which may be causes which have effected his standing to some degree), Junior Kelly has pretty much been on his own over the years and he has DEFINITELY done extremely well for a ‘loner’ when it comes to his music and particularly his albums. Therefore, although it wasn’t exactly on my radars in terms of expecting it, when it was actually announced that 2010 would bring the first legitimate studio album from Kelly since 2005’s Tough Life, it IMMEDIATELY skyrocketed on my list of ‘things to do’ this year. Well I’m ‘doing’ them now because I’ve gotten my hands on his excellent new album Red Pond and even before I dug into the actual music here, I had a VERY good feeling about this one given the various things I had heard surrounding it and also the early sounds I had managed to hear (and the ones with which I was already familiar). Besides just being a Junior Kelly album (again, in and of itself, more than enough to grab my attention and anticipation), Red Pond comes via the label with which the artist has had a great deal of the majority of the best work of his career to date, industry leader VP Records, also on board here, as far as production, is the legendary Firehouse Crew. Of course the artist with which Firehouse is most closely associated is Sizzla Kalonji (and they produced, just last year, the increasingly excellent Ghetto Youth-Ology from the August Town genius), but given the way their riddims are typically laid (at least to my ears), with much of this BIG and SPRAWLING anthem-like very modern sound (with just a twinge of the old school), myself and I think most Junior Kelly fans would agree that such a style is nearly perfect to meld with his style. With Kelly’s very vibrant (and somewhat varied) type of chanting which often borders into what I feel is quietly one of the better singing voices in all of Reggae music, and of course his experience in doing just that type of voicing, the link between the production on the album and his tones, even on paper, are very impressive. Furthermore, the two entities have also worked well in the past with the pinnacle being probably the BIG tune ’Black [Am I]’, arguably one of the bigger hits of Kelly’s entire career. And to speak back on the Junior Kelly/VP Records link - Red Pond becomes the fourth studio album of the relationship - following the aforementioned Tough Life, 2003’s Smile (on which ‘Black’ appeared) and of course Junior Kelly’s opus Love So Nice in 2001. So, if ever there could be an album which was almost CERTAIN to be a winner, even before actually listening to the music, certainly this one would have such a possibility. Also, have I mentioned that it’s been about four and half years since we’ve had the honour of digging into a Junior Kelly album! The passage of that time only adds to my own anticipation (and hopefully yours), for what ultimately proves to be a LOCK for one of the best Reggae EXPERIENCES of 2010.
What really stands out for me as far as the material on this album is how it’s quite a bit more socially conscious first than spiritually conscious. The album is one very much on a tangibly inspirational vibes and much more so than an ‘upward thinking’ inspiration. Perhaps that has something to do with very earthly title of the album which is the nickname of the community in St. Catherine (Frazer’s Content) where Junior Kelly is from (always thought the man was from Kingston for some reason), which would seem to portend a more ’immediate’ and social direction for the album. Said album, Junior Kelly’s excellent Red Pond from VP Records, begins so nicely with three of the most powerful efforts on the entire project, including my absolute favourite. The first of the triumphant trio, ‘Celebrate Life’, is definitely one of the more spiritual pieces on the project, but it makes such a wonderful tangible connection. I just like how the message comes through on this one because if you check the lyrics, “celebrate life whoa, fyah bun you if you no celebrate life”, it’s very much something you can get a quick handle of and Kelly takes it in so many different directions (including the resolution of conflict) as examples of celebrating life that you REALLY take in the fullness of this awesome opener very quickly. It leads very powerfully into my full on favourite tune on the album altogether, ‘Nuttin Wrong With The World’. This tune doesn’t have the SPECTACULAR sound you’ll hear coming from several tunes on Red Pond (including the opener), but what it does have going for it is a very sweet old school set, combined with the fact that it just may be one of the most lyrically impressive tunes of Junior Kelly’s entire career (which is saying a great deal, definitely). The tune speaks, BRILLIANTLY, of how people have essentially fucked the planet up and how it alone is without flaw and serves its purpose. “Nuttin nuh wrong wid di world, ah di people dem weh in it, if you don’t hail di King wi ahgo bun you every minute” (and it's grown on me considerably since I've first heard it several months back now). Kelly also, again, makes the proverbial bridge from the spiritual to the tangible and does so on such an impressive high level - “Alla di war weh fight inna district tell me weh man a fight fah? Fi control di world weh dun control by Jah Jah”. I mean this thing is DEEP! I’ve found myself spending half hour stretches at a time going back and back on this tune already and I’m sure it’ll resonate within heavy fans of the artist as well because it is GENIUS! Not far from that same level is ‘African Child’, another beautiful piece which speaks so nicely not only about Junior Kelly’s special lady, but is a tune I’ve taken to look at the love of an entire family. This one is very healthy also, checking in at just under four and a half minutes, it’s vibed to sound well over five minutes and I LOVED it. BIG BIG opening.
It’s interesting that I take the first three tunes and single them out as such an impressive stretch of tunes on Red Pond because I could just as easily make the case for most of the album being on a similar stretch. Another lineup begins with the former single, the very fiery ‘Murderer’, which flows over the Firehouse Crew’s big Wata Bed Riddim. You should simply just vibe this tune on your own, as it finds Junior Kelly on full intensity going after exactly who the title suggests (and violence in general) and sacrificing none of the GENIUS lyrics to do so. ‘Waan Lef De Ghetto’ is SERIOUS and it’s the next tune up (it kind of sounds like the old vibes Minor 7 Flat 5 used to push and I mean that in a good way). This one is HUGE and is probably my second favourite tune on the entire album. It presents the story of a person striving to improve themselves and get out of poverty, but not wanting to do so the wrong way and not wanting to abandoned his home either. It presents and ‘paints’ a VERY interesting set of ideas and it’ll definitely get you thinking. It’ll probably have you thinking in much the same fashion as the very interestingly vibed ‘Stumbling Blocks’ does on the following track. This excellent effort espouses on the corrupt system, itself, and does so in a very relatable way. It almost sounds like, at times, Kelly is intentionally stringing together simple thoughts to make some (clear) greater meaning and message and this one is the better because of it definitely - One of the most interesting pieces on Red Pond. The very classically tuned in ‘How Better Ah Go Come’ steps in next which, at least in my opinion, kind of takes a previous tune ‘Waan Lef De Ghetto’ to a more detailed step as it kind of outlines WHY exactly (people “waan lef de ghetto”) and how (it became a ghetto in the first place). It was around this tune on the album when I simply realized that Kelly was in ‘the zone’ in terms of heightening his vibes here for this nearly magical stretch and of course he didn’t stop there.
Right after that, three of the four most ‘differently’ vibed selections on the album come in succession. The first is the obligatory acoustic set, ‘Believe In Yourself’. This one impresses even more than such tunes have recently for me (and that’s saying a nice thing in this case, because I’ve been dealing with very talented artists as of late). It has other complimentary vibes in the backing as well, serving as a nice stage for Kelly’s very straight forward and comforting message. ‘Slackness’ is a bouncing almost Ska-ish type of number which kind of had me thinking that Kelly might be about to address some of his peers and their lyrical choices, however and of course, he takes the tune in a direction which observes SOCIAL slackness. Isn’t it always confusing with tunes like this? On one hand you want to observe its serious nature, but on the other hand you kind of feel like dancing don’t you (and then feel bad for doing so)? Well, you can find me doing both, simultaneously. And then there’s the kind of ‘churchy’ sounding (another acoustic piece) ‘Real Love’ which had to work on me a bit, but eventually GRABBED me and did so in higher way than ‘Believe In Yourself’, also. This tune just taps into your emotions and makes you feel good and I’m all for that!
I mentioned that those three pieces were three of the four most colourfully vibed tunes on Red Pond. You can find the forth ‘She’s Gone’ earlier on in the album and it is the first of three relatively high profile combinations here also. This one is a pretty straight forward R&B sounding tune and it features the talented singer Lukie D. It isn’t necessarily one of my favourites for the album (as you might expect already), but it isn’t a bad tune and I’m thinking quite a few people will probably enjoy it and to no small degree either. The second combination, however, I LOVE! I had my eye on ‘Papa’s Song’ ever since I saw that it featured the insanely talented Ras Shiloh, but I never made the connection to the fact that it was a tune that I had actually known. The tune was from a few years back and apparently just never received a great deal of attention (SHOCKINGLY) (in both of their cases actually), but it is wonderful and one of the best here. I always love songs that take things in a different direction and you have two of the music’s greatest practitioners singing a song for all of the (GOOD) Fathers of the world, it should have a far reaching strength and here, it most certainly does. And the final combination on the album is the most high profile and the most popular as well, the dynamic ‘Too Late’ which features the divine Queen Ifrica. This Al.Ta.Fa.An produced piece is excellent, it’s been around and popular for awhile now and I THINK this is the first artist’s album on which it appears so it’s certain to get a much deserved ‘second wind’ of sorts here, as a highlight for this release. Not bad at all, in full - For an artist who pretty much does things on his own and in his own way, Junior Kelly typically does strong combinations and Red Pond is definitely no exception.
That leads us into the final two tunes on the album, which are also two of its finest outings as well. ‘Treacherous Waters’ actually reminds me quite a bit (for some reason), sonically speaking, of the aforementioned ‘Black’ with it’s HUGE ‘rolling’ style of vibes. Junior Kelly uses the big backdrop to deliver a message warning the masses to BE CAREFUL in your daily works and be mindful and just INTELLIGENT in regards to with whom we associate. Excellent tune. And finally is ‘One Bright Day’, a tune which I’m fairly sure rides Firehouse’s nearly legendary and MAMMOTH Like Mountain Riddim (which you know from having backed Sizzla’s tune of the same name as well as Jah Cure’s EPIC tune ‘Chant’). Kelly does indeed live up to those lofty expectations amassed from the output of his contemporaries with the tune which kind of takes the opposite view of the traditional chant (to which it is not related), ‘Babylon Throne Gone Down’ [bka ‘Rastaman Chant’] as, instead of saying - One bright day the righteous shall inherit the Kingdom Of Zion - Kelly takes it in another direction and says “one bright day, heathen will get dem pay”. He offers a heavy SPIRITUAL warning to the wicked (and even WONDERFULLY breaks into reciting Psalms in the latter half of the tune) as he closes the door on Red Pond, hopefully to open another sooner than four and half years from now.
Overall, I do so much want to stress how not only IMPRESSIVE this one is (and it is), but also how SIGNIFICANT it is. As I said before, Junior Kelly is a Reggae star, whether people on the large scale want to show him that level of respect now remains to be seen, but that is EXACTLY what he is and when he has an album, it is a big deal. Red Pond is a BIG DEAL! It also happens to probably his most lyrically advanced outing to date. Kelly says some very interesting things and expands on some equally very interesting ideology on EVERY tune on the album. Of course the production is top notch from Firehouse Crew (and I do so much hope that they continue to release albums), which was to be expected and I’ll tell you what else I’m expecting - Come December you’re certain to see Junior Kelly’s Red Pond in discussion for album of the year honours. As far as big names go, Junior Kelly is the first of 2010 to offer a truly BIG album. Very well done.