(I know. I should know better. I really should )- For me, of course, the ‘be all end all’ when it comes to artists is Sizzla Kalonji. In writing a ridiculous amount of reviews as I do these days, I’ve come to see the fact that, with the way I rate albums (on a scale of anything 1-5); Sizzla is the only artist who starts at perfection consistently in my mind. Whenever he releases an album, I initially have huge expectations and it is ultimately up to the music itself to lose that 5 star rating. Certainly there’re other cases of similar things, but I find that those cases are almost exclusively reserved for ALBUMS which I have a great feeling about and not necessarily ARTISTS and definitely there’s a big difference there. The result of that UNDOUBTEDLY is that I have most certainly overrated quite a few Sizzla albums over the years and I probably still do and I don’t really care actually (except in one case, which was ridiculous) (and no, I’m not going to tell you which) and I think that’s a ‘normal’ approach to have when dealing with one’s absolute favourite artists. You’ll make excuses for them, you’ll fill in gaps which don’t quite make sense and you’ll even leap to conclusions, in some instances, which make absolutely no sense at all and I’m speaking from experience in that. So, when I look at the type of artists who have the same type of interest from other people, it’s definitely very interesting and most interesting as a critic and there exists no more interesting and captivating ‘FAVOURITE’ artist amongst Reggae fans, in my opinion, than Vaughn Benjamin and Midnite. I was actually trying to think of what might be the second most interesting and I eventually came to the type of ‘sports teams’ mentality of devotion which tends to appear almost exclusively in the Dancehall where you have the ‘Beenie - Bounty’ and ‘Gaza - Gully’ type of situations and surely there is something else which is on the way (even in smaller scales you’ll have the ‘Busy - Aidonia’ and ‘Corleon - Big Ship’ type of rivalries which quietly shall exists as long as the entities themselves (if not longer)). And while at least ostensibly the Dancehall situation may seem more interesting than Midnite, when you really think about it, just like sports teams, it exists no matter who is playing or who is cheering for who is playing, meanwhile I don’t think we may ever see the type of STRANGE devotion given to Midnite any time soon, at least not for anyone while you and I are walking the planet.
So why does that type of devotion exist and where did it come from? I have no idea where it came from. Midnite is a unit which seems to UNITE both the casual and the hardcore fans alike. Seemingly the casual heads will see some COOLNESS or EXCLUSIVITY in listening to them, while the hardcore Reggae head may actually see the same thing, but sees it AND is able to appreciate the output. On top of that, you can’t deny the fact that the face of the act, Vaughn Benjamin is a genius, pure and simple and you could make the case that he is one of the greatest ‘magicians’ with the tool of the spoken word since the invention of speech. But that talent isn’t one which always reaches the ears of everyone with the same power. In the case of Sizzla, you’ll get people criticizing him for making the slack and the violent tunes and crazies like myself will step up to defend him by calling it ‘experimental’ (or whatever the hell I say), while with Benjamin and Midnite, you’re certainly going to hear criticisms like ‘strange as hell’ (or as I like to say, “CRYPTIC” or “ABSTRACT“, which is basically a more colourful way of saying the exact same thing). And I also think that same level of abstractness is something which adds to their general appeal as it definitely creates more of a ‘mysterious’ vibes. So, as you might imagine, Midnite’s following is one of the most devoted in the current landscape of Reggae music and arguably ever (I’m seriously starting think that Benjamin’s popularity is something which may actually grow after his musical days, and perhaps lifetime, are long over, which is amazing to think of) and thus, their output is also some of the most popular ‘off-centered’ in all of Reggae. So while VP may never get around to releasing a Vaughn Benjamin album and they may never be nominated for a Grammy (although I think that it might be possible, given their current trajectory), Reggae fans worldwide will continue to pay attention. Well, what they’re paying attention to now is one of the most interesting ‘Midnite’ releases in quite awhile and actually the only MIDNITE release that we’ve seen in a half decade apparently. The actual word ‘Midnite’, in reference to Reggae, has become primarily a nickname of sorts for Vaughn Benjamin over the past few years and his ‘have vibes will travel’ type of practice. But what we have in What Makes A King is an album which features Vaughn alongside his brother, musical genius Ronnie Benjamin Jr., instead of a long line of characters from various stops along Vaughn’s incomparable musical journey. And I don’t know about you, but when I first heard that, the first thing that came to mind was the potential spectre of Ronnie Benjamin’s kind of euphoric-like smile which he seems to have always implanted on his face while accompanying his younger brother in playing the vibes of Midnite in live shows. The result of the kind of return to HOME type of album is one which, in my opinion, EASILY outdoes a great deal of the more recent output of Midnite and it also doesn’t have so much of the kind of hard to transfer type of vibes which the other albums do, such as Ina Now and DEFINITELY To Mene. And while by no means saying that What Makes A King is as accessible as . . . Junior Kelly’s last album or something like such (it isn’t), it’s more of what I personally think about when I think of ‘GOOD’ music from Midnite. Of course the lyrics are top notch, the music is less arduous to get through and less ‘experimental’ and . . . Well, it’s just a BETTER album in my opinion.
Unsurprisingly, the album not only marks a return of Midnite to itself, but a return of the band to their very own label, Afrikan Roots Lab. I THINK that makes this album the first on ARL from since Dezarie’s own return in 2008 with Eaze The Pain and that, in and of itself, is a pretty big deal as well, as I’m sure it’s also Midnite’s first album for the label in approximately four thousand years. I also wasn’t too surprised that the album checked in at a rather small ten tracks and there is NO filler to be found. The first of the ten on Midnite’s return album, What Makes A King, is the downright paralyzing title track. The song, with its type of ‘ethereal’ type of vibes is probably one of the (if not THE) least accessible tunes on the album and it sounds like something from the last couple of years from Midnite, but when you get into the words and THEN overlay them with the backing (which is highlighted by a beautiful piano and chimes (I THINK)), it is a GORGEOUS song. I could spend days and days (as usual with Vaughn Benjamin‘s work), trying to break the tune down from every conceivable angle, but instead I’ll attempt to sum it up by saying that the tune ultimately is about STANDARDS. When you deal with the standards of a KING (figuratively and literally (and in Benjamin’s case - otherworldly - as well, I’m sure)), it stands above the standard of man and I think that is what Benjamin is attempting to show - The drastic difference of standards of man and His Majesty. That song is amazing and I’m almost surprised that I’m not declaring it the finest tune on the album named after it, but that distinction, in my opinion, belongs to the second tune on the album, ‘Emotions’. This is probably the FULLEST sounding new Midnite song I’ve heard in quite awhile (having spent hours and hours toiling through the most skeletal of productions from them as of late) and on top of that it just makes such a powerful, yet indirect, statement in regards to the music of Midnite that it is absolutely captivating. I find the tune kind of slap at critics (like myself) who may listen to Midnite and wonder why they may not do more NORMAL sounding vibes. Vaughn seems to say that they’d much rather do meaningful tunes with EMOTION, instead of “rude boy thug songs and mainstream pop songs, and one would definitely have a hard time arguing against that (and I’m not going to) (at all). I found the tune so very poignant and fitting that, for me, it rose the top of the levels on the album and I may be the only one who feels like that, but who cares. LOVE that song. The final tune in the opening blot is the very clever pseudo-repatriation anthem ‘Native Son’. I could so work the angle of the group returning to itself in regards to this tune and returning to its label (and I guess I just did), but definitely it is more of a HOME type of song in terms of the children of Afrika. However, in any way you receive it, you have to receive it as powerful because that is exactly what it is. Very strong start to the album.
Definitely given their placement and their respective titles, the tunes ‘Give Her Her Due’ and ‘Jah Bless Her’ are going to be linked closely on What Makes A King. To my opinion, the latter is the stronger of the two, although neither are amongst my favourite here (although ‘Jah Bless Her’ is certainly close). These two tunes, in particular, REALLY challenge the listener (in a good way) to pay attention and I think, even in my case, the better you come to comprehending what is being said there, the better you appreciate the vibes which is the norm with Benjamin’s lyrics.
Those two tunes give way to a couple of tunes which clearly are two of the album’s finest pieces in my opinion. The first, ‘Shine’ is top three at worst (and I may actually go as far as to call it stronger than the title track). I love everything about this tune, from the message and the mood (which is this kind of cold and calculated, ‘matter of fact’ type of approach) to the actual pacing of the song as Vaughn speaks on the power received from His Majesty - This very special “shine”. That tune is followed by another big one in the crawling ‘High Places Of Anu’. I, as ridiculously longwinded as I most certainly am, wouldn’t even have the time to get into all of the various directions in which this tune is drawn inherently (by merely its title). But to make it as basic as possible (which is impossible), “ANU” certainly has a biblical tie and probably a biblical meaning as well and it also is the code for Antigua’s airports and it’s noted for supposedly being one of the highest stations in the world as well. SO! With that information (which is almost certainly flawed in some respect), DIG in to an incredibly DEEP song and saying that in reference to Vaughn Benjamin’s standard of ‘DEEP’ is definitely saying something big.
Of the final three selections on What Makes A King, I appreciated all of them, although two in particular really stand out. One of them is the first of the three ‘Dem Gone’. Despite how it may seem initially, I think this song is actually one of the easiest to digest and comprehend on the entire album. It speaks simply to those amongst us who insist on living in a negative way (and Vaughn goes into a great deal of detail, to the point where I think he even means people whose diets aren’t what they should be as he says “disrespect yourself is to offend Jah empire. Dem Gone”). It’s a beautiful tune by its end as well. The next song, ‘Neat & Nice’ may just be my least favourite on the album, but it’s still not a bad tune. The song kind of seems like it has a problem getting started and the very strangely vibed riddim certainly doesn’t help matters. I did find that the more I listened to it, however, the better that it got (strictly in terms of appreciating the pace of the tune), but I’m still not very fond of it. And lastly is another very good tune in ‘Stagnation’, with its absolutely sublime riddim. So outstanding, in fact, is the riddim backing the tune, that despite Vaughn’s very nice lyrics (the tune speaks to Vaughn’s view of the current state of the world which is not changing, for the worst), the highlight of the tune has to be the final minute or so which is almost kind of incidentally completely instrumental (it’s just like he took a break from singing). To have that as the final thing you hear at all on the album is an EXCELLENT touch in my opinion.
Overall, What Makes A King, although not great, is probably the strongest Midnite (or Midnite-ish) album I’ve heard since 2007’s Rule The Time and it’s also probably their most accessible (again, don’t compare the level of accessibility of Midnite to ANYONE else’s) since that album (which was excellent) as well. You can perhaps owe that to the band being back together or just owe that to coincidence or (HOPEFULLY) a newer musical direction for this year. Of course that’ll be revealed soon, but in strict regards to this album, I APPRECIATE IT. I myself am kind of a ‘middle of the road’ type of fan when it comes to all things Midnite, so anytime you can move closer to typical Modern Roots Reggae, of course I’m happy. As for the hardcore Midnite fans, of whom I built the premise of this review, I hope and from what I’ve seen the album has been quite well received and, of course, just like the vast majority of ‘their’ material What Makes A King will hold a very special place in Reggae at the time. It’s a Midnite album and that alone makes it a very big deal, perhaps even bigger than most people know.
p.s. Of course if you don’t like it, you can just pick up ‘their’ new album Ark A Law.
Afrikan Roots Lab