Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"Finish Him": A Review of Feel Your Presence by NiyoRah

I think it’s almost ‘the nature’ of what we do as fans of music to be quick to point out when there’s an artist who doesn’t quite pan out the way we thought he/she might have and falls below our expectations. We use words like ‘underachiever’ and ‘flop’ when an artist has shown something special in the past, but cannot seem to recapture whatever it was. Moreover, there’s the case of the ‘one-hit wonders’, which is kind of an insult in music terms, despite the fact that there’re literally millions of struggling artists around the world who would probably give anything to gain such a status. However, this isn’t always the case and thankfully there are situations where an artist does rise to the occasion and becomes everything you, and maybe even everyone, else may’ve hoped and thought that they would. Within the timeframe of the last decade or so, I can rather safely say that even though he may have ‘equals’ (such as Lutan Fyah), no other artist who comes to mind has more so wonderfully developed and become the SENSATIONAL artist I believed they would than the St. Thomas based Dominica born singing chanter, NiyoRah. I’m so much directed back to a very short five years ago in 2005 when the biggest label on the Virgin Islands Reggae scene, I Grade Records, released a trio of albums known as “Fyah, Earth, Wind”, which featured Niyo’s debut album A Different Age, Ancient King’s Conquering Sound and Rasta Awake from Army, in close succession. In retrospect, you could probably make the case (although I’d probably disagree) that of the three, NiyoRah’s album was the least impressive (and we’re dealing with very slight terms here, I’d give each of those albums a very decent ranking at this point still), however, he CLEARLY had the most potential (and it’s quite telling, in my opinion, that I Grade has continued along to this very day and all of those artists have had albums since then, but the only one to have had one, subsequently, on I Grade has been NiyoRah). I could tell very clearly back then that he was an artist who, at least seemingly, would have a GRAND future and given that Ancient King’s very fiery style was one that I was well accustomed to and that Army was, almost certainly unbeknownst to anyone outside looking in (including yours truly), probably already a pretty big deal on the Virgin Island scene, Niyo, of the three, was the one I was going to be sure to keep an eye on and half a decade later and I’m still so closely watching. One year after A Different Age, Purification Session dropped and it remains one of my favourite albums of all time, the progress NiyoRah showed in that one year was amazing and definitely the question became - Could he do it again?

Well, we’ve essentially had to wait four years to find out (although there was Stolen Scrolls in the meantime), but now he’s ready to show if he can with his brand new album, Feel Your Presence on his own brand new label Denkenesh Records (distributed by I Grade, fittingly, and of course the beautiful girls and boys at Zojak Worldwide, digitally). In the past four years, although he hasn’t been super-active Niyo’s name has been out there on singles - He was featured on I Grade’s MAMMOTH Joyful Noise compilation, he’s guested on more than one of Itation’s riddims, songs for a few other labels as well (like Lustre Kings) and there was also a tune ‘Capture The Moment’ he did for a giant double disc compilation by the name of Gather The Remnant. That particular tune is very interesting because that project, to my knowledge, was directed by veteran Andrew ‘Bassie’ Campbell, recorded in primarily in Jamaica and it featured a whole heap of artists from all around the Western Hemisphere and lo and behold, NiyoRah’s new album was produced by Bassie Campbell, was recorded in Jamaica and he is also from somewhere in the Western Hemisphere. I don’t think that it’s too far of a leap to make to say that what you’re going to hear on Feel Your Presence comes largely from work perhaps done on the same trip to Jamaica to work on the compilation or was an idea birthed by said trip. Also, I think it’s worth mentioning that last year, when I first got wind of a forthcoming album from Niyo, all research I had done actually pointed to the thought that the album would, in fact, be named Capture The Moment, so I definitely think the two instances of recording the compilation and the album were somewhat related at the very least (I also think that it’s somewhat interesting that, going back to Niyo’s musical origins, with the now famed Star Lion Family, both he and superstar Pressure Busspipe who came from the group have both now done a great deal of work in the birthplace of Reggae music). And if you haven’t vibed Bassie’s work previously, it certainly should be said that he is EXCELLENT and as his first album outside of the proven lot that is Laurent ‘Tippy’ Alfred, Tuff Lion and co., which he enjoyed at I Grade, NiyoRah made a wonderful choice. Still, with all of that talent, with four years now behind him since we’ve last heard from him on an album, the aforementioned improvements he made in between his first two albums and the fact that NiyoRah has simply grown up (apparently he’ll be thirty years old in a matter of months) (still older than me) expectations for this album should be almost unfair, but I don’t give a damn! I was expecting MAGIC with this release and nothing short of magic would have sufficed. And after fourteen tracks of Feel Your Presence I can very interestingly say two things: The first being that it isn’t a ‘better’ album than Purification Session, but the second is that - As it turns out, it really didn’t have to be. Let’s examine!

Between the A Different Age and Purification Session albums, the main difference that I noticed was that NiyoRah seemed to grow in what I used to call “aggressiveness”, but I now recognize as self confidence and assuredness and it is a quality he has in abundance and puts on full display on his brand new third studio album, Feel Your Presence, the debut release for NiyoRah’s very own Denkenesh Records label. Getting the album started is a stream of FIVE tunes which, at least to my ear, are nearly perfect pieces and it really got to the point where I had to go back and take a listen and make sure that I hadn’t accidentally randomized the player, but that’s exactly how it is. The first of those tunes is the very lyrically complicated ‘No Guts, No Glory’. Given the title of the song and how it eventually plays out, I took the song as one which is a call to action of sorts - There’s an old saying which says ‘if you don’t shoot, you always miss’. The confusion occurs near the beginning where Niyo speaks of people in various situations (sometimes active and sometimes inactive) being saved by His Majesty and he also repeats it later on as well, however, the conclusion that I reached in regards to that is that what Niyo is doing is setting the ultimate example and ‘bracket’ of GUTS and GLORY. It is HE who has the most guts and receives the most glory and thus people who attempt to do the same, walk in a fashion as HIM. Regardless of the meaning conclusions you reach, it is a HUGE tune and it finds the artist IMMEDIATELY grabbing his listeners’ attention and forcing us to think, which is always a welcome development. The next tune is one I have been looking forward to hearing for more than a minute now as it, the scintillating ‘Bruk Down Barrier’, features NiyoRah alongside the always excellent Jah Mason. The tune is just a BIG vibes aimed at destroying corruption wherever it may exist and the two make a very strong duo. Have to say that, of course, the Mason is on point throughout, but my personal highlight of the tune is Niyo’s second verse where he absolutely DESTROYS that lush Bassie riddim before turning whatever was left of it back over to the Mason to attempt to rebuild! The tune is also a dosage of some ‘edge’ nice and early in the album and that too is a good thing. ‘Bruk Down Barrier’ clears the way (did you catch that?) for what is, in my opinion, the strongest tune on the album, the first single and title track:

“Now I feel your presence again
Whoa Jah!
Now I feel your essence again
Whoa Jah!
So take me, liberate me, educate me
I’m asking you -
Oh please, oh please

This divine piece of a tune obviously has a spiritual basis, but it develops into an even more spiritual and tangible vibe (particularly later on) that is just so powerful that . . . I mean, this song should help A LOT of people and in so many ways. That stirring title track is followed by the aforementioned ‘former’ title track ‘Capture The Moment’. This swinging song (is currently making my daughter dance) is another very strong one and for me it simply means to appreciate the time we have and, as is his norm, NiyoRah puts some nice twists and turns in the lyrics, but he eventually comes back to center which is a very nice way to start and end. Speaking of “twists and turns”, ‘Close Call’ is kinda/sorta the obligatory herbalist track for Feel Your Presence, but instead of espousing on the virtues of marijuana (as you’ve heard on hundreds of tunes by this point), Niyo focuses on the fight that it receives and finds himself in a few very tight situations which I won’t spoil for you, but you should definitely check out on your own (and the WICKED way the riddim just continues for about fifty seconds after the lyrics are done). Like I said, that very first line of tunes on the album really gets the energy (and the EXPECTATIONS) very very high.

When you slap “featuring Sugar Minot” on any song, you’re also going to get high expectations which are exactly what NiyoRah receives on the tune ‘World Jungle’. I imagine that it’s largely due to Minot’s presence, but to my ears, this tune has a very nice old school vibes around it. The tune itself speaks to the world in general, the dangerous aspects of it and Sugar Minot and paint the picture of a place (and a potential place which isn’t safe for ANYONE, not even the oppressors themselves (and ‘incidentally‘ Minot also featured on the aforementioned Gather The Remnant release, as did Jah Mason).

Don’t let the fact that I stressed the first few tunes let you think that the remaining pieces are substandard in any way, because they most certainly are not. Let ‘Turn Around The Garrison’ stand as a fine example of that as the delightful tune is probably one of the best on the album. It’s also one of the straightest forward and doesn’t particularly need a big breakdown, but I will say that, for me, the prevailing sentiment is UNITY and that comes through very strong, particularly later on, but the big and colourful vibes are the big attraction here. The vibes are also very strong on the next tune, the dazzling ‘Backbone’. This one is going to stand as THE love song of Feel Your Presence, but it certainly isn’t your stereotypical ‘love song’. It’s actually more of women’s empowerment type of notion to my opinion and even though it eventually moves more back into the realm of being the standard type of love song, it’s only done after it has been reinforced that, “you are the backbone, fi tek care ah my home”. The VERY curious and interesting ’[No One Go] Round The Track’ is at least a minute and half longer than any other track on the album and that’s largely due to the fact that this GORGEOUS riddim plays for about two minutes after Niyo’s portion is done and it goes all over the place and is absolutely POUNDING with that one-drop. The song itself is somewhat complex (duh), but it hit me as predominately a social commentary of epic proportions (“They give us sneakers and jocks to build up their own stocks. Have us working on clocks, then they feed us rocks”). The same could be said about the next two tunes on the album as well. Check ‘The Day The Dollar Died’, which is NiyoRah’s comment on the economic problem the world is taking. In the lyrical sense, “the dollar” begins to take on more meaning that just in the monetary way. It becomes a symbol for corruption and Niyo’s comment seems to be how much more beneficial life is when LOVE is the center instead of the dollar. And then comes ‘Propaganda’ which, outside of maybe ‘Round The Track’ (because I had to really listen closely to hear the lyrics), is probably the song which I actually spun through the most times on the album and that’s because it goes all over the place. It actually has more of a freestyle type of vibes with Niyo addressing a variety of topics and I’m sure there’s a single direction in there, underlining it all and I’m still searching for it. But in the meantime, I’m enjoying the FIRE of this excellent vibes. Things are less frantic, although no less interesting (and electric) at all on the completely well done ‘Stolen Legacy’. The tune features Niyo so brilliant speaking on the “big robbery” (“them making a mockery”) and doing so in the context of the Afrikan Diaspora and all of the bullshit we’ve encountered over the years in being separated and being turned against one another. It’s a very deep song, but one which thrives in both the educational and entertainment realms and to me that makes it one of the best tunes on the album as well.

And as Feel Your Presence winds down, we get a tune ‘From Since When’ which speaks on . . . Patricide of all things. I would think this tune came from some type of experience NiyoRah heard of or actually saw because a very specific and somewhat random thought to focus on, but as usual he hits it very hard. I also think that the song speaks on just general deterioration of society (I.e. if someone KILLS THEIR OWN MOTHER FOR MONEY, how further down can you go?) as well. The tune also has a very interesting set, it sounds like something Femi Kuti may do in terms of the riddim and NiyoRah sounds perfectly at home with it. And lastly is a tune which is DEFINITELY one of my personal favourites, the organic ‘Indigenous World’. This, the final tune on the album breaks the mold and becomes the clear choice as the album’s changeup with it’s pounding drum/wilderness type of riddim. You can take this one in a variety of directions and the one I ultimately came away with is to enjoy nature and the ‘natural aspects’ of the world.

“Don’t you judge a man from the bush [You know why?]
He might be an ancient soul from the land of Kush
And don’t you the woman from the forest [You know why?]
The spirit of Menen could be in the body of Delores”

NiyoRah also speaks about leaving the world of confusion (“with the river as my radio”) and then jumps into the second verse which turns the fire way up. And if ever there were a tune on the album you’d hope would continue, like a few others, with the riddim playing after the lyrics are done on the tune it would be this one and sure enough ‘Indigenous World’ gives us about forty seconds of just that which is a very nice way to end the song and a very nice way to end a more than just “very nice” album.

Overall, yeah yeah yeah, it’s a beautiful beautiful album and it’s the third TRULY great Reggae album of 2010 in my opinion, but I want to go back and make a ‘comparison’. Like I said, I can’t say that Feel Your Presence is an improvement over the wizardry which was Purification Session (one of the best NAMED albums of all-time, by the way), but it is better in some spots (lyrically, for instance), however, that’s not the point. What is my point is that these two albums are very similar and if you were to go back in time and suddenly Purification Session was a double disc release and the second disc was Feel Your Presence, it wouldn’t be too out of place because it goes so close with that album, that it literally sounds like a continuation of what started back then. This album is like the second installment of that one and that is GREAT thing, I’m going to say that (given the very different way in which this album was done) that it wasn’t actually by a design from NiyoRah (or anyone else), but what I think it is, is a matter of him becoming who he is going to be as an artist. You listen to his music now and he can deejay and he can sing, he can do straight chanting and his lyrically ability is now slightly stronger which is definitely saying something. So maybe after all that, it is some type of progression in terms of quality. Regardless, judging it on its own merits, Feel Your Presence is a BIG shot and it’s one of the best albums of 2010 coming from an artist in NiyoRah, who is now a ‘finished’ product. EXCELLENT!

Rated 5/5
Denkenesh Records/I Grade Records/Zojak Worldwide
CD & Digital
{Releases on June 15, iTunes exclusive}

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