Friday, June 18, 2010

"Attention Paid!": A Review of Romain Virgo

Typically in reference to Reggae music, when we throw around words like ‘appealing’ and ‘marketing’, we’re talking bout something at the absolute zenith of the genre. We’re speaking of how can someone like Sean Paul or Elephant Man “appeal” to the mainstream fans and be “marketed” to them, despite the obvious cultural gaps in terms of dialect and other such things. And while, for the most part, this question has certainly been answered (-by simply giving the people crazy danceable music-), you’ll still more often run into this type of a discourse rather than the type of ‘appeal’ and ‘marketing’ we’re going to be dealing with today. In this case, what we find is a process of trying to market an artist to the hardcore, incredibly possessive and incredible jaded Reggae faithful, such as you and I. And I know what you’re thinking - We’re so smart that we don’t fall for that bullshit - but we most certainly do (a look around at my tags would reveal that as to how much money I’ve spent on some of this stuff). And of course, when it comes to marketing Reggae music on that level, STILL the greatest existing entity is VP Records. Currently if you find yourself tired of hearing about Gyptian and his legendary exploits surrounding ‘the grip’, you can of course owe that to the marketing machine that is VP Records. That tune is hyper-powering itself around the world and although it pretty much made itself a hit, you can bet that the label was all too happy (and not hesitant AT ALL) to throw the full might of its marketing machine behind it. Also currently enjoying the benefits of being marketed to more than casual Reggae fans is someone like Etana. I’m fully expecting the hype of the angelic songstress from out of August Town to get even stronger than it’s been as we get nearer and nearer to the August release date of her much anticipated sophomore album, ”Free Expression”, but it’s already been very strong and, in terms of an artist between debut and second albums, I can’t remember one who has had more of a push in recent times. Of course Tarrus Riley is also riding that promotional wave and if you’re a big reggae fan (which you almost certainly are) and you’re arrogant as hell (and you probably are), you might not give credit to VP for the work that they’ve done in making a superstar out of Riley and have you not consciously taken note of how he’s rather gloriously moved into one of the top spots in modern Roots Reggae? All that being said, if they pull off what they’re apparently aiming for with Romain Virgo, it may just be their greatest marketing effort to date.

Why? Because what you have to do is to sell a perceived ’TV artist’ and not do so to casual fans (who either will or won’t buy it), but do so to people like you and I who know enough to be interested, but also know enough to not be interested. Of course you know the story that in 2007 (the St. Ann native!) Romain Virgo took the top prize in the popular Digicel Rising Stars competition (’Achis! What the hell is that?’ It’s Jamaican Idol), which brought him to the greater attention in the Reggae industry and eventually led him to what we have today, his self titled debut album from the biggest label in the game, VP Records. Now, while all of that is most certainly significant, in my opinion what is even more crucial is exactly what Virgo did with his time in between those occurrences, which was to DEVELOP as an artist and do so with quite a few producers, but most notably with the pretty much legendary Penthouse Records and Donovan Germain. THAT is what has done the work in terms of showing not just how talented Virgo actually is and growing him a fan base outside of those who liked watching him on television by allowing his music to have the best possible chance to succeed. Of course, by comparison there’s also Chris Martin, who won the same competition a couple of years ahead of Virgo and is a couple of years older. Although he certainly has had his opportunities (and continues to), he wasn’t afforded the same class of CONSISTENT instances as Virgo and now a have decade after the competition his ultimate career trajectory remains a mystery (and don’t even get me started on other winners of that show like Cavan and . . . Yep). That’s certainly not the case with Romain Virgo, however, as because of dropping big tunes with Penthouse and others (and wonderfully his own coming up and busting out pretty much coincides with the return of Germain and Penthouse to the scene as REAL and major players in the business) and doing so with a very nice consistency in terms of activity, he’s essentially kind of moved himself into the ranks as just another big artist on the scene. And as “just another big artist”, that’s exactly how we’re going to handle his album, as just another big album as, off the top of my head, I’m not able to think of anyone debuting in 2010 or potentially debuting in 2010 (with the possible exception of Spice, although that’s looking more and more likely for next year in my opinion) who MIGHT even draw as much interest in Reggae from the hardcore fans in one way or another. That kind of ostensible draw to the album also goes to the credit of VP’s marketing machine as does just the general way in which they’ve handled Virgo. Besides touring and being quite visible on the scene in the general sense, VP’s incredibly active release schedule has allowed them to ensconce and activate Virgo on several of their compilations and other releases as well such as ”Introducing Romain Virgo”, which was a very nice and very well serving EP released prior to the album. Simply put, despite the very unusual circumstances we find ourselves in with Romain Virgo, EVERYTHING that could possibly be done to ensure his successes has been done and maybe even a few other things as well. The results? Probably one of the better albums anyone is going to hear this year.

What is immediately most impressive for me going into the album is how despite the fact that the artist is perfectly kind of positioned to be that type of wooey loverman ladies’ man type of a singer, the album (and, by extension, his work on the whole) isn’t overrun with these middling type of love songs. Instead, the youth shows maturity beyond his years and strikes in with a very healthy mixture of love songs and cultural/social material. And it just so happens that the opening of ”Romain Virgo”, the debut album from one of the most promising young artists in all of Reggae music, exhibits that assortment of vibes very nicely. The album unsurprisingly begins with ‘Mi Caan Sleep’, arguably Virgo’s biggest hit to date. The tune is a HUGE social commentary and, for all intent and purposes, is the finest outing of Virgo’s career to date (so obviously it’s the best on the album as well), as it takes a very sweet vibes set and combines it with not only a very powerful message, but one which is conveyed in such a way that it’s ENTERTAINING - He cannot sleep because of all the violence, all of the gunshots he’s hearing at night - which is always important. You should definitely full on know this tune by now, but if not, this is the perfect time to become acquainted with this master class of a song. Next up is a tune which is going to look extremely appetizing on paper and it plays out just as well as one might’ve imagine, as ‘Who Feels It Knows It’, which was a previous hit, has been redone to feature the aforementioned outstanding August Town songstress (and CUTIE), Etana. ’The Strong One’ only adds to the vibes of what was already an excellent song and puts a feminine touch on a tune which speaks of people basically spending their lives working themselves to exhaustion with no tangible reward and poverty and just the system as a whole. Again, you don’t expect people of Romain Virgo’s age and experience to be able to get through tunes like this without sounding mechanically programmed by some producer, but this is his tune and he not only pushes it, but he blasts it! Excellent song. And you see we get all the way to track #3 before we get a love song and when we do, in the form of ‘Love Doctor’, it’s also a very strong tune! Built on that ridiculousness which was Penthouse’s mighty fine Automatic Riddim, the tune (despite it’s title), isn’t corny, it’s very well done and one of the best such tunes on the whole of the album (and, given the opportunity, I think it definitely has quite a bit of crossover-able potential as well). Big start and it doesn’t go downhill from here either.

Sticking with that same vibe on ”Romain Virgo”, let’s look at the balance of the love (or love-ish) type of songs on the album. First up is a tune which I’m tempted to not even put in this category, ‘Taking You Home’, because while it certainly has elements of ‘the love song’, the tune is actually about domestic abuse. Virgo has his eyes and his heart set on a woman who is coming from an abusive relationship (“I’m taking you home with me tonight, cause I’m a lover, baby I won’t fight”). It is DEFINITELY a touching and powerful song and, again, it’s one which so wonderfully fits outside the context of what you’d expect from such a young artist. Another love-ish type of song is in next, ‘As The Money Done’. This one is more of a warning to young people (young men in particular) who happen to suddenly come into a bit of money (like an artist or an athlete) and are just as suddenly surrounded by women . . . They don’t stick around after you blow all the money. The tune itself just sounds very well done and well arranged as well and, to my ears, is one of the finer outings here. Next is the gut wrenching ‘Should I Call Her’, which finds Virgo having left a good woman for a woman who apparently isn’t so virtuous. In the tune we find him (both inwardly and outwardly, but mostly inwardly) complicated as how to proceed with himself. “Should I call her, baby? Or go knocking down her down? Should I tell her that the girl that I left her for don’t want me no more?” he says which becomes a topic that I’m not sure has been covered in recent memory. That is an excellent approach for a tune which also happens to be one of the best sung on the entire album. There’s also the very familiar previous hit ‘Wanna Go Home’ [aka ‘Rain Is Falling’] which is excellent and also a next song, ‘Walking Out On You’ which is kind of self effacing as Virgo is heading up the road because his woman CAN DO BETTER THAN HIM! Very interesting. Later on is ‘Dark Skin Girl’ which is nearly MAMMOTH. Big respect to everyone (like me!) who just ADORES the chocolate Afrikan skin and . . . Yeah it’s a beautiful beautiful thing. The tune is an ode to the darker complexioned women who are the queens and keeper of everything beautiful in my opinion and there you go! And lastly is the dazzling ‘Customer Care’, which finds Virgo going straight up circa 1989 Dancehall deejaying style over Penthouse’s redo of the old Duck Riddim (with the twinkles, you know the one). This one is absolutely intoxicating and forgive me if I just sit here another minute or so before finishing this big ass review.

I do want to say, in a prevailing sentiment of Romain Virgo’s love songs, that even though he does make them quite frequently, as evident by the material on the album, most of them have ‘twists‘. They’re most certainly just not ‘oh baby, baby I love you’ (biggup Peter Tosh), but they address specific situations within that very broad spectrum. That quality is very nice and it takes your ‘standard’ love song and turns it into some exponentially more interesting in my opinion.

When you get to the final third or so of ”Romain Virgo”, the vibes once again become decidedly of a more socially conscious and/or cultural nature and the young singer just continues to impress. Check ‘Live Mi Life’ which, like ‘Customer Care’ is gifted with a resurrected older riddim. In this case it’s the classic Boops, which was brought back last year by Shane Brown and Juke Boxx to a nice effect. The tune is another very nice highlight with a heavy message and it also has kind of a free-flowing vibes to it which is also a nice touch. The tune ‘No Money’ is somewhat funny because on it Virgo speaks about how the perception is that because he has a big tune playing on the radio and playing in the dance - He’s still kind of broke! The song is another far cry from what you might imagine from someone from Virgo’s age group and it’s a very strong tune as well. The singer goes all Buju Banton on the people on ‘Murderer’, which features an absolutely DOMINANT vocal performance. The tune speaks largely on the children and their safety in particular as Virgo offers up a slap of EPIC proportions to those who would place young people in danger of and in varying degrees and ways and the slap comes, fittingly, with absolutely no remorse. The album’s obligatory Nyahbinghi number, ‘Be Careful’, comes one tune before expected, but it’s still on board and it is gorgeous. The tune is purely an antiviolence number and right now and definitely is going to have a big effect (and it already has in some respect, I’m sure). It breaks down the effects of violence on the community, the familial and the general social levels and it’s just a touching and moving track to the point where YOU ARE A PIECE OF SHIT if you listen this tune and still have some type of violent aspirations in your heart. Closing shop on Romain Virgo’s self titled debut album from VP Records is the highly appropriate ‘I’m Doing Good’, which so happens to feature Cameal Davis, another winner of the same Digicel Rising Stars competition which propelled Virgo (she won in 2008). This tune isn’t one of my favourites on the album, but it’s a very nice song and it’s one which is very inspirational as well. At its core, the tune is about being grateful for what you have, even though you may not have it ‘all’ or even be satisfied with what you have, the fact that you have SOMETHING is cause to be joyous in some respect (“I may not have education like half of this nation, but I‘m doing good“). Again, I wasn’t blown away here, but the song and its sentiments wraps a very nice bow on this very nice album.

Overall - YES! Romain Virgo pushes through with an EXCELLENT album which is almost certain to be one of the best of the year, come December. Going back to the premise of this review - Of course the most important thing when it comes to properly marketing an artist to people who REALLY know the music is to have GOOD VIBES and this album has that to spare. When you have that, you get people like me talking and you get even further into dismantling this type of ‘too popular’ and ‘TV artist’ perception that exists in our arrogant, jaded asses. On top of that, you find me another youth that isn’t hailing His Imperial Majesty who’s making tunes like this. Virgo may, ostensibly, be poised to become ‘the next Sanchez’, but really it isn’t too far off, at least in my opinion, that his career may very well follow artists more like Luciano or a Jah Cure or someone like that who definitely does drop in the love song, but does so in a very unique and captivating social context. Already at this point the youth is nearly the complete package and if you are a hardcore Reggae head, a casual fan or someone who doesn’t even know what in the hell a Reggae is, Romain Virgo’s debut album has something to offer you as one of the best albums of 2010. Well done.

Rated 4.75/5
VP Records
CD & Digital

Romain Virgo @ Myspace


  1. Great review ...but this album is a 6 (not 4.75) out of 5 possible stars... considering Romain's age and awarness of social issues he has an interesting and unique way of expressing his emotions through his voice. He FEELS what he is singing about and it is so very apparent when you listen and hear these songs.....A classic album no doubt!!!!