Etana - The Strong One [VP Records, 2008]
Somewhere right now is an artist that I’ve never heard of and you’ve never heard of and they’re recording their first album. Sometime later this year or next year maybe we’re going to get that album and hear it and it’s going to be very strong. We’ll be impressed almost to no end and you and I will talk about it with words like “great” and “fantastic” and deservedly so. But there is no pressure on that artist, whoever she/he is. Even if that album is not up to par, you and I, not knowing who they are, won’t be so vehement in discussing its low points as we would be in discussing its high points were it great. In fact, we may still talk about how good bits and pieces of it is, that artist is literally in a no lose situation of sorts. Things are not always that way however, sometimes the pressure is VERY high. Such was the case when just two years ago August Town Princess, Etana, had captivated the Reggae listening world (and just a bit beyond as well) and had done so to the tune of scoring an album contract with VP Records, the biggest label in the business and almost immediately grabbing up fans worldwide. Perhaps it was due to her overall FRESHNESS and her genuine appeal (she can sing her ass off and she’s very easy on the eyes) or whatever the case, Etana became a big deal. And with such a big deal comes big expectations and sometime even when the expectations are the greatest and the lights are the brightest, the artist PERFORMS, which is exactly what Etana did with her debut album. The Strong One.
1. Don’t Forget
Equal parts groovy and ballad-ish was the opener for The Strong One, ‘Don’t Forget’ and, as that mix might suggest, it was one of the ‘hardest working’ tunes on the entire album. This song has always (and by “always’ I mean 2 years) struck me as one which seemed to try as hard as it possibly could to inspire people. It seems to tell everyone to seek inspiration from almost ANY source and any little thing, but at the same time it doesn’t flow in the line of being sappy as hell by telling the listener ‘everything is going to be alright’, it actually does acknowledge a problem and potential problem.
Best Lyric: “Don’t forget! Just fi know yourself’s a blessing. Don’t forget! Second-guessing is regressing”
This song along with tune #14 on the album were probably the first two that most people had ever heard from Etana and, in my opinion, it’s a song that it still very important in overstanding her as an artist and in particular the ultimate direction of this album. Ostensibly, what the tune simply does is to warn the older people of the coming generation who is wising up to what is happening in the world and specifically through the light of His Imperial Majesty. More than that, however (as if that weren’t enough) (and it was), the song also speaks to a far more general sense of DETERMINATION and PERSEVERANCE which is so so instrumental in taking in the album in totality.
Best Lyric: “You caan water down and dilute. You caan hide the truth from the youths”
3. Jah Chariot
If ‘Roots’ didn’t get you up and motivated (something is wrong with you), then certainly ‘Jah Chariot’ will finish things off. The first vibes here are very moody, very subtle but once it gets ‘rolling’ (which doesn’t take a very long time at all), it’s definitely one of the finest tunes on the entire album in my opinion. It really goes through a wide array of emotions and there is such a POWERFUL . . . It’s so hard to explain, but there’re points in this album when you feel like an EXPLOSION about to occur, almost as if Etana is driving the chariot herself.
Best Lyric: “You don’t need a passport, you don’t need a visa. All you need is a clean hand and pure heart. Forget all your vanities, drop your emotional baggage. With those things, you will have to part. When you see Jah Chariot rolling . . .”
4. I Am Not Afraid
Etana’s ‘I Am Not Afraid’, her cut of the best riddim of 2008, the Rub-A-Dub from Flava, was one of about a billion or so hits on that seamless track and it stood out for various reasons in my opinion. First of all, not only was hers the only female’s voice on the entire riddim, but hers was also, arguably, the single most inspirational and COMFORTABLE as well. Despite the fact that Etana does indeed stretch her vocals just a bit on the tune and her overall proclamation is ultimately one of POWER, I can’t help but think the tune is one of the COOLEST on the riddim. And of course you’re not afraid Etana, you are the strong one.
Best Lyric: “If dem ah come, let dem come, cuz I’m protected by The Most High One”
5. Nothing But Love
For some reason, after ‘I Am Not Afraid’, this one comes as somewhat of a jolt in terms of the vibes, because at first it slows things down even further before ascending into this angelic composition. This one is simply about ENJOYING life and enjoying things in general in my opinion. It’s a song to brighten things up just a bit and while it doesn’t go to ‘full sunny’ mode (thankfully) it rather easily accomplishes its purpose lyrically (“say we owe nobody nothing but love”).
Best Lyric: “AS I TAKE A LITTLE WALK DOWN THE STREET, I NOD MY HEAD TO EVERY SINGLE ONE I MEET”
6. Caltariba System
Be honest - When you saw this title the first thing that most certainly went through your mind was - ‘ The what system???’ The Caltariba system is the oppressive global system which Etana takes aim at on this absolute gem of a tune. Firstly, the tune itself is ENTERTAINING, it’s a very colourful and just interesting song to listen to, very pleasing to the ears and on top of that, it isn’t just some type of gimmicky piece she throws in. You could very well make the case that this is the best written tune on the album altogether. The video was also spectacular (forgive me, but DAMN, she looked good!) and showed Etana as this kind of space aged angel, seemingly making observations of the world with the most clear of heads and she’s disgusted.
Best Lyric: “We are living in a crazy, lazy world. Most people fight for power, not peace. We are living in a crazy, lazy world. Only Jah can save us from the belly of the beast”
7. More & More
Etana apparently has been ‘smitten’ over a special someone and she’s ready to (cut the bullshit) take things to the ‘next level’ and uses this wonderful tune to express exactly how she’s feeling. At first, it’s kind of a very straight forward tune, but Etana so tactfully finds a way to draw it back to ‘center’ in terms of the running subjectry of the album. Apparently this wanting of “more and more” is something she finds herself dealing with quite often, it bothers her to a degree and it’s something which requires work and attention. And of course she’ll work it and stay the course, like I said, she is the strong one (and listen to that riddim VERY carefully, it’s GORGEOUS!).
Best Lyric: “How many times do I have to cry? Why can’t you see me? I’m right in front of your eyes”
8. Blessing featuring Alborosie
Of course I’m not the biggest Alborosie fan in the world and his voice isn’t exactly wowing me on this tune, so you know it has to be something serious when I’m giving some of his work a big credit (and I am). This tune was LOVELY and it was kind of different from this string of love songs that we’re in, because it went back and TANGIBLY connected it to The Almighty and in doing so, it almost seemed to squeeze the “love” even tighter. You have a love blessed by Jah, you have something even more than just special (maybe Albo should use Etana on ALL of his songs).
Best Lyric: Etana “. . . but that is just a waste of time. Dem su su su caan break down love divine”
9. I’ll Be The One
Having apparently successfully wooed the object of her affections two songs earlier, on ‘I’ll Be The One’, we find Etana ‘outlining’ exactly what she’s willing to do for you now that she has you. What struck me most here is that Etana (and I don’t know if this was by design or by happenstance) covers ALL of the basis. Besides being a ‘good woman’, of course, she also says that she’ll make her man . . . LOOK GOOD in front of his friends. She’ll just be a very strong addition to his life in any way she can and that’s definitely a powerful bit of dedication and perseverance.
Best Lyric: “I’ll be the girl they talk about - All of your friends when they come around. ‘She’s so respectful, she’s so nice’. Girl of my dreams, she should be my wife”
10. Warrior Love
Here it is. The single best moment on the album and so easily one of the most BEAUTIFUL tunes that I’ve ever heard in my entire life. I remember listening to this one (and more vividly my Wife listening to it) and just LITERALLY taking a step back from the vibe because you just KNEW that the woman had hit it almost perfectly and she had. The song is about persevering and progressing OUTWARDLY in a relationship. With the inside (meaning between the two people) clicking on all cylinders, it’s strong enough so that not only does everyone know it, because they can see it, but should anyone fall foolishly under the notion that they can ruin it, “dem caan stop di way I feel for you, my love has no boundary”.
Best Lyric: TIE “Behind every strong man, there is a good woman, that’s who I live to be. You seem to be pleased with who I am, cause you’re the strongest man I’ve ever seen. I’m a whole lot of woman, who love everything that love is worth. For you to have me on your mind always, you must be carrying the weight of the earth!”
“The love inna wi heart it will LEAD US TO JAH. Mek HIM bun down di wicked wid di LIVING FYAH”
11. Wasting My Time
This SPECTACULAR tune goes hand in hand with the magic which precedes it. ‘Wasting My Time’ is absolutely KNOCKING and even though it kind of, sort of addresses a negative moment or a negative mood - Again Etana manages to speak of thoroughly progressing and overcoming and perseverance. And should this tune not get your head nodding and shaking up a bit . . . No. The song is a dynamic example of exactly what Etana is capable of when she gets a bit of spice in her, a spice with which she continues to thrill.
Best Lyric: “Mama seh ‘never put your trust in flesh, cuz they will leave a pain in your chest‘. Even when you give them your best, they will always put you through stress”
The crystal clear opening to ‘Closer’ sounds a bit like ‘Caltariba System’, but don’t get it confused, this one definitely has an identity of its own as one SWEET love song from Etana. The song is pretty straight forward and it actually got me to thinking that it might just be SO straight forward that it could be a rarity for Etana and while I’m still thinking about that, I can definitely say that this tune was nearly outstanding. It’s a very SENSUAL (sexy and mature = “sensual”) vibes from the tune and although I haven’t gotten the opportunity to just yet (although when I get home, I’m going to give it a shot), I’d imagine that on a slow dance floor or . . . Yep, this one might just be spectacular.
Best Lyric: “You take me places far away. You are my love song. YOU MAKE ME WANT TO HAVE YOUR CHILD. Little angels running all around”
This genre bending tune (kind of country, kind of poppish) has essentially fallen beneath the radar of this album in my opinion and given the way it was vibed, that’s not very surprising. However, it falls in a line of tunes which immediately grab the attention of the listener as being one which supports the title and by extension, the purpose of the album (or my idea of the purpose of the album). It also has a bit of a ‘twist’ to it as well, because it’s somewhat of a love song, although as you should well notice by this point of the album, Etana’s idea of ‘overcoming’ and LOVE is pretty much one in the same.
Best Lyric: “Never too late for us to try - We can overcome. Though the obstacles are in our way - We can overcome”
14. Live & Love Life
As if the title of this one was evident enough, this ballad of a tune (at least to my ears) borders into the realm of traditional gospel music and that’s probably how I’d classify it (as I sit here listening to it with the church choir like backing singers now joining in over the organ). Insofar as this one needs explaining (and it doesn’t), what you can take away from it is Etana bringing church to your speakers, because if at now thirteen tracks deep into this album, you don’t know to “live and love life”, then you might want to grab up an Aidonia album (and good luck with that!).
Best Lyric: Pick one.
15. Wrong Address
It seems like so much has happened since this rather folksy (WICKED) sounding tune first dropped. Yet, just like ‘Roots’, the message on ’Wrong Address’ (both the surface and deeper ones) is still just as pertinent. Here, you have the story of a young woman searching for employment, but every time she fills out an application for work, where she wants to work, she’s denied because she lives on the ‘wrong side of town’. That alone is a very unexplored topic, but if you look deeper into it (as Etana does on the tune’s bridge), the tune is about self empowerment and perseverance and just an overall self-belief. And again, given the circumstances of the song, you’re going to have a very difficult (I,e, IMPOSSIBLE) time calling this 5th Element produced piece sappy or unoriginal.
Best Lyric: “It’s easier to give into the pressures of life. It’s harder to get over when you try to do right”
DAMAGE! Although most certainly the first 1:10 isn’t at all bad (it’s actually very good), you should at all let that part stop you from listening to the rest of the tune (if you do, you’re an idiot), because this one EXPLODES into a bright and big vibed social commentary speaking to the greedy people of the world focusing on their . . . Greediness. And of course you almost HAVE TO pay attention to what she does with the title because it exists in the song as “news clear” and when you take the actual title and substitute it in, the lyrical pieces (again, speaking of greed in the world, particularly amongst those in power), the tune so BRILLIANTLY still makes sense and probably it makes even more. Something to think about as she sends us on our way.
Best Lyric: “News clear, every power junkie has to be there”
If you haven’t figured out by now that (at least in my opinion) the overall prevailing topic of Etana’s The Strong One is overcoming and perseverance, then you haven’t been paying a good attention, have you? In nearly every aspect of the album, within the subjectry of nearly every song and even on the album’s cover (more on that in a minute), what you take from it is the notion that there is WORK to be done. And not only that, but you also come to think that if that “work” is not done, then the joy and the happiness which Etana believes exists, is either completely unattainable or it’s attainable in far less measures (as the old saying goes, ‘it’s greater later’) than if you worked to achieve it. This is evident and clear (in my opinion), from the very beginning and, as I said, if you look back at what’re probably the two earliest recordings on the album, you’ll see it there as well - ‘Roots’ and ‘Wrong Address’.
“So you beat them
So you mistreat them
So you lock them down and you think that you’ve won
But dem ah hold a meditation
Out inna Iration
Dem ah follow Rastafari and ah live, ah live upright”
This passage, taken from very early on in ‘Roots’, for me is a very significant stretch because it kind of sets the tone for the entire album and the song as well (duh). Later Etana gets more specifically into things speaking about the youths not only overcoming, but actually REJECTING certain aspects of corrupt society, but this bit here ‘simply’ goes through and sets the tone that such conquering and rejection actually exist and exist so in the will of His Imperial Majesty. Also, I think it’s definitely worth mentioning here - The line “dem ah hold a meditation”, which to me, goes into the actual process of planning to begin to overcome, which if you think about is CRAZY detailing in lyrics from Etana and absolutely brilliant if she spanned it out in such a way intentionally.
“Been through school, passed every test
Graduated above the rest
On her society still looks down
They do this why?
They don’t want us to try”
I grabbed this portion from ‘Wrong Address’, but really you can stop anywhere in that song and take a snippet of lyrics or just take the premise of the song, in general. This song speaks DIRECTLY (and uniquely) on an actual instance of having a struggle and what I like about this one (like many of the tunes on the album), is that it doesn’t seem to try to get so sappy or peachy (or preachy), by painting everything as being so nice. Quite the contrary, Etana presents an example of a young lady who is well along in the process of bettering herself, but STILL can’t get a break and a job. It’s almost sad if you think about it, but again, it’s part of the struggle to be won over. Doing so can result in the RIDICULOUSLY lovely smile adorning Etana’s face on the cover of the album.
I’d also like to look at two songs which go into detail about the actual system of corruption as well. Of course you know that one of them is going to be ‘Caltariba System’, which so intrinsically and tactfully goes after said system of corruption and the other is the closer on The Strong One, the nearly brilliant ‘Nuclear’.
“Say there’s no more chains
Round their feet or round their necks
But the track is its all in the brain
Fighting everyday, that’s the price you have to pay
For The birthright that you have away”
Okay, you’re getting into some downright Willy Lynch type of language here as Etana goes DEEP with the tune in that bit in particular. And the song in general really has a very ‘SPICY’ kind of tone to it as well as a certain kind of ‘absentness’ to it where it comes off as Etana is just telling the listener what is going on and there is this quiet air of CONTEMPT and DAMN DISGUST by it. It’s hard to get to that point, of course, because the song sounds damn smooth, but well pay attention in the case of ‘Caltariba System’. On ‘Nuclear’, while she sounds more directly involved (as she does on newer works such as ‘Free’ and ‘August Town’) in terms of the subjectry (and in both case, I should say, I do think the moods are intentional), I think largely the same vibes of disgust are intact, but this one is a bit more upful (or ‘powerful’) ostensibly and this one is bent on making its point and making it NOW:
“Children are dying and people are suffering
Give us what’s due so we can make it through”
She’s in the process of painting a very torrid picture lyrically and she accentuates in a variety of ways (including calling down “WAR” over and over again), so you really catch just how intense it is for Etana herself, but maybe it’s just me - I don’t get the feeling that she’s ready to lie down and just accept that what is going to be is going to be in this case (maybe it’s that GORGEOUS smile on the cover).
And I simply do feel compelled the magic that is ‘I Am Not Afraid’ as well, because it also speaks (rather matter-of-factly) to the struggle and more specifically to the overcoming portion of the struggle after painting another very bleak picture:
“They don’t mind!
When you fall behind and can’t pay your bills on time
Prostituting and standing inna them government line, no
And they don’t mind!
When you waste your time coming up with some stupid line
Influencing the youths dem fi snort a line or take a life
And they don’t mind!
When you locked up in jail, can’t get no bail
Sentence fi life
You can’t see yuh youth dem strive
But they don’t mind”
Of course it doesn’t stay all too bleak, however, as the tune is easily one of the most inspirational on the album. Etana quickly outlines the limits of her nonexistent compliance:
I’m not afraid
I’m not afraid
I’m not afraid
If dem ah come, let dem come, cuz I’m protected by The Most High one”
Lastly, I’d like to look at the love songs and you know EXACTLY where I’m headed. ‘Warrior Love’. First of all, just look at the title - ‘WARRIOR LOVE’. The word “warrior”, definitely denotes that there is some fighting to be done. You don’t call on a warrior when everything is peaceful, warriors do not keep peace. So the title definitely is thrown in there as well. And then there’s the song itself and there is a line in the tune which, for me, REALLY makes a point about what type of overcoming Etana is talking about, just as she offered another side of it on ‘Roots’ (when she said “dem ah follow Rastafari . . .”):
“. . . Wanna be your warrior
Break down every barrier
WITH MY LOVE AS MY WEAPON
I can walk the world without a fear
I can hold my head high without a care
And I can fight the world -
Every grudgeful boy and every badmind girl
WITH YOUR LOVE AS MY WEAPON”
The key point here, of course, is LOVE. In terms of fighting against corruption, Etana lyrically (and probably literally) uses LOVE as a WEAPON! DEEP! And it really goes to the point where, although I do call the tune a ‘love song’, it’s not really just a love song in the stereotypical sense, but it’s not very much about achieving the love. That’s already been taken care of. She’s talking about the steps it took to achieve it and the steps that it’s going to take to DEFEND it (“dem caan stop di way, dem wish and dem hope and em fight and dem pray)! And I also take the tune to have a greater significance in terms of being a metaphor for life in general and you could very well argue that the subjectry of the tune, the relationship, is the most significant aspect of life and society as well. So definitely ‘Warrior Love’ has so much importance within it and within overstanding the concept of The Strong One, which is the persistence and perseverance of life. It’s about overcoming a struggle which so many people haven’t and so many others have and have had no interest in even taking up in the first place. You can do so, as she says I ‘Roots’, with the light of His Majesty or you can do so with LOVE, as she says on ‘Warrior Love’, however, I’d most certainly be willing to bet that in the eyes of Etana and rightly so, those two are the exact same thing as well. I’d also be willing to bet that you won’t find too many a better album than The Strong One, A BONAFIDE MODERN REGGAE CLASSIC!