Tuesday, February 8, 2011

'The Stronger One?': A Review of "Free Expressions" by Etana

I always wonder if the people charged with making and promoting this wonderful music view certain releases and events as strongly and crucially as I do. Unfortunately the business side of Reggae music remains much of a mystery and very opaque to most people, myself well included, so we never really get a clear explanation or idea in most cases, but when I look out at early 2011, I see a grand amount of potential for Reggae to take a rather significant step forward this year. It certainly did so in 2011, largely on the strength of the international work done by Gyptian with his big tune, ‘Hold Yuh’, and its subsequent album. You also had ‘So Special’ from Mavado which did a similar strand of damage not too long as well as a forthcoming album from Elephant Man (next week), which will hopefully spur on at least one hit which can do big things as well in the future. Those types of strides are a bit different than the kind we’re going to be dealing with today, but huge paces nonetheless. Those are instances where the light of ‘mainstream’ audiences is directly shone upon Reggae, whether they realize it or not, and it becomes very obvious that such a thing is very important. We’re not dealing with the glaring and very obvious in this case, this is more about something which is just a touch more ‘low-key’, but arguably just as important in my opinion. When you say “Reggae Music”, the thought which still first comes to mind, to most people, would be something more along the lines of Roots music. The musical archetype certainly isn’t ‘Hold Yuh’ or ‘So Special’ - That’s more along the lines of what you’re accustomed to seeing from Sean Paul for the better part of the last decade or so - the type of music that is going to be thought of is the foundation of what we’re seeing and hearing these days from the likes of Tarrus Riley, Queen Ifrica and Duane Stephenson. Of course, also in that group, and arguably the most dynamic and one of the most marketable is the enchanting August Town native, Roots Reggae Princess, Etana. With her biggest (previously named) group of peers all having dropped albums within the past two years, the spotlight for representing the new breed of Roots Reggae (as well as the ‘burden’) lies with Etana and WHATEVER it is that she comes up with may not attract the same audiences as Gyptian’s work full-on, but it’s also going to attract a hell of a lot more than just you and me, whether we know it or not.


What she came up with, of course, was ”Free Expressions”. Etana’s sophomore release for VP Records comes to us FINALLY after a year of having been postponed and delayed and delayed and postponed (if I’m correct, it was rescheduled on three different occasions). In the now two and a half years or so since the release of her debut album, ”The Strong One” (which was the best album of 2008); Etana has done absolutely nothing but thrill. She’s had a very healthy stream of singles and hits of various degrees. She’s also done some of the biggest stage shows in Jamaica and festivals around the world and she’s worked with some of the biggest and best producers around the globe as well. She’s also been, at least in my opinion, a very healthy ‘ambassador’ of sorts for Reggae music. I do not know her, but she seems to carry herself very well and she’s still young and energetic which is definitely helping to change the image of Roots music being not only an older person’s music, but being a MALE dominated culture as well. Through all of that, she’s also managed to become a star and arguably one of the biggest Jamaican Reggae artists in the world today (who still actually regularly records) (can someone please introduce Etana and Don Corleon to one another???). So, when I look at ”Free Expressions”, I do so from a point of view that, while it may not reach that vast ’mainstream’ group DIRECTLY, it may do so indirectly by further establishing her name as one of the premier Reggae artists in the world. Now, that’s just for them, for us - You & I - ETANA HAS A NEW ALBUM! We’ve been waiting for it from ever since we got our very first taste of the material which built her first album and now it is finally upon us. The release comes in a very strong streak from VP Records which includes albums from the likes of Bushman, the aforementioned Elephant Man, Richie Spice and apparently Gentleman in this first quarter of 2011 and, with respect to Richie Spice (who is a former label mate of hers), Etana’s is the most anticipated amongst hardcore Reggae heads. So, with all of that being said, although I’m sure she doesn’t think of things like this, the pressure is on to make a great project and, COMPLETELY unsurprisingly, she handles it with the class and grace you’d expect and does not disappoint AT ALL. While, perhaps do to the numerous delays (there were even two different official EP releases in anticipation of the album, ”Happy Heart” and the recent ”Free”) ”Free Expressions” is an album which features a few very ‘familiar faces’, those pieces which we do know we do not know simply because they’re a year old; We know them because they’re big big tunes. What I noticed after having taken this album in for quite some time now (and initially not liking it), is that while it isn’t an IMMEDIATELY gripping project, it’s one which kind of slowly grows on you which, in this case, may be ‘better’. Reportedly Etana titled the project so because it was much less orchestrated and intentional than its predecessor and when you do that, while you may sacrifice having a ‘source’ goal with the album, you may actually open it up for fans to create a source for it on our own which is exactly what happens in this case. Let’s take a look!

'People Talk'

Although this album, as I said, is one which strikes me as one which takes a minute to real get the strength of, I do want to add that Etana’s sound (literally her voice) has either gotten stronger or she’s become more used to pushing it to its limit so what you have here are some VERY devastating vocal performances on the album. Such a tune is actually what gets us started on Etana’s brand new album, ”Free Expressions”, ‘Free’. This is my favourite song on this album and it is one of my favourite that Etana has ever done and one of the reasons is becoming it is downright HALTING! It is the type of tune which may catch in a conversation or in the middle of doing something else and when you really tune into just a little - Everything stops and you have to pay her that attention. It is BEAUTIFUL! Perhaps fittingly, the tune is produced by Kemar ‘Flava’ McGregor who does a nice bit of the work on the album and the two, as we’ll see have developed a most wicked chemistry which pinnacles on the EPIC opener for this album. The next tune up, ‘Mocking Bird’ is another hit over another stellar riddim [The Ghetto] supplied by Flava. This tune I’ve always liked because, ostensibly, it shows so much diversity and versatility in Etana’s skillset - She straight sings on the song, she ‘singjays’ (I HATE that word) and she deejays (like that one though) as well and she infuses so much attitude into her vocals as well while delivering a message which is basically a social commentary, but a very unique one and one which is not to be missed at all. And lastly from the opening batch of songs on ”Free Expressions” is another well known selection, ‘People Talk’, which rides a sterling relick of Winston Riley’s old Satisfaction Riddim, courtesy of The Specialist. This tune is about literally what the title implies - People not saying the nicest things about you and doing the nicest things around you - But thriving in spite of it.

“When you go through heartache
When you feeling pain
When you end up inna desert
And ah wondah why di hell it nah rain
When dem pass dem judgment and every word lef a stain
When dem talk up di tings dem
Juss fi mash up yah life and give you bad name”

“Never let dem get you down
Never let dem see you frown
Never let dem take away your livity
Live your life and be free

Never let dem get you down
Never let dem see you frown
Never let dem lead you astray
Starting today, live your life your way”

While there’re plenty of hits and potential hits to be found on the album, prior to its release it had already scored with five BIG tunes. Along with the two opening tunes, there was also ‘Heart Broken’. Produced by Curtis Lynch, Jr. of Necessary Mayhem from of the UK, the tune is a jilted-lover’s song of sorts but . . . Damn. I don’t know if feeling sad ever sounded SO good as on what is, sonically (and really) one of the best tunes on the album. ‘Happy Heart’ was another song which did a great bit of damage for Etana before ”Free Expressions” arrived and when you give it just a single spin, the reason why is clear - It is an absolutely STERLING tune. It may actually feature the best vocals from the singer to be found on the whole of this album (which is saying a lot) and definitely Flava’s Sweet Riddim backing doesn’t hurt and neither does the fact that this may be the single biggest ‘traditional’ love song of Etana’s career. So, despite the fact that it would spawn a video which had a truly AWFUL ending, ‘Happy Heart’ is probably my second favourite tune on the album. And the fifth and sequentially final big shot of a tune for the album was the hard hitting ‘August Town’. This tune attracted a great deal of attention when it popped up in late 2009 and it’s well maintained a presence from then as well. Lynch also helms the tune which speaks about Etana’s increasingly musically fruitful hometown which isn’t the most pleasant of places, but you can still hear it in her voice that she has a healthy reverence for it.

'August Town'

Although perhaps not reaching those very high peaks in terms of popularity, there are a couple of other tunes on this album which should be familiar as well. The first, the outstanding ‘I Know You Love Me’ was pretty high-profile as it appeared on yet another Flava riddim, the Classic, and it is excellent (incidentally, Etana also has a big combination with Luciano, produced by Flava, which I expected to be on the album) (there’s excellent Ustream video of that tune being recorded also) (I digress) and one of the highlights on that STACKED riddim. The other tune you may know is another piece of classy vibes, ‘War’, with its GIANT sound, via the Blessings Riddim.

“There will always be that one -
Who thinks the poor should be poor and the rich should get richer
That one -
Who believes to achieve him haffi hold down him bredda
There will always be that church -
Who believe that their way is the only way to Jah Jah
There will always be that one -
Who believes that he’s better because of his complexion”

“Well mi ah no eedyat
Mi have mi two eye fi see
Weh you do everyday to di little pickney
Bawn into this world, so clean and so pure
Yet you try to break dem heart and destroy dem soul
Turnin dem into murderers and whores
Soon dey go realize di truth!”

The song is a very powerful and poignant lyrical statement, one not too dissimilar to (and almost clearly inspired by) a song of the same title from the Reggae royalty whose date of birth we honoured a couple of days ago.

'I Got You'

And then there’s the fun stuff! Not too surprisingly, with a bit of the press about ”Free Expressions” throwing around terms such as “genre-blurring”, it is on the new material on the album where you see that explored and defined and although you know where my allegiances lie (just have a look around) - It isn’t a bad thing. The first such tune on the album is ‘I Got You’ which is another Specialist production (alongside Alborosie) (biggup I.Eye), which is a cool little . . . Maybe R&B with a hint of traditional Gospel - Inspired tune. I hesitate to call it a ‘love song’ (even though it is) because I usually reserve such terminology for Reggae and this one is just hard to put a finger on. But, I do really really like this song. It’s just cool and mellow type of vibes and it well shows another side of Etana’s seemingly endless musical capacities. ‘My Name Is’ finds Etana (channeling her inner Eminem) going on a vibes whose melody is vaguely familiar for some reason. This is probably my least favourite tune on the entire album but truthfully . . . It’s not that bad. There’s also ‘Moving On’, which is another Necessary Mayhem production and it doesn’t sound too different from ‘I Got You’ in terms of the vibes. This one maybe is a little more ‘Folk-ish’, but it isn’t DAMAGED to my opinion. Too many times you’ll hear songs like this from a reggae artist and it’s either as if they didn’t try at all, or that they tried far too hard to make something out of it. While the tune surely isn’t amongst my favourites here, Etana and Lynch do find the proper mix of it in terms of direction (and I also really enjoy the way the tune ends). You’ll also definitely notice ‘Venting’ which was one that I simply did not like AT ALL until quite recently (after a few weeks or so), because there is so much going on with the tune. (Producer??? Lynch) It almost seems like a theme from a movie with it being so frantic, there’s drama and love and just everything going on and it’s growing on me! STRANGELY that song is followed by ‘Day By Day’, one of the slowest on the album which may’ve sounded even better located in a different area, but as it stands is pretty good on its own merits.

And finally, the two remaining tracks on ”Free Expressions“, while new to me, fall pretty close to Reggae and they are GORGEOUS! ‘Retribution’ is a song that I think is going to generate a great deal of discussion in the not too distant future. Not at all that it’s a controversial tune, but it’s done in a way, with such a large sound that I have a hard time seeing it not receiving some type of push and when/if it does it’ll make an impact just as sizable as its sound in my opinion. And the final selection on the album is one of my favourites all the way and I think it’ll end up being one of everyone’s favourites also. When I saw the title, ‘Dance’, I got nervous because I just knew they were tacking on some rubbish fast dance song for ‘the clubs’, but I was so fortunately wrong!

“Everyone is leaving
We’re still holding hands
Caan let go this feeling
Wanna stay here and dance
Cheek to cheek
Chest to chest
Belly to belly, you know the rest
I’m whining with your breath on my neck
But you should know, I’m a lady
You can tell by my demeanour -
I’m a Queen!
If you can’t see, then keep your drink boy
If you’re a real king, then you can come with me -
And dance"

Well, I wasn’t totally wrong - It is a ‘dance song’, but it isn’t what you’re probably thinking right now, instead of the wild and crazy latex wearing vibes you probably have in your head, think of some nice and slow grinding type of dance. The song is delightful and the riddim! . . . It is one of the finest on the album and one of the highlights of the tune is definitely how it is allowed to play over the final ninety seconds or so of it sans vocals. EXCELLENT and unexpected way to end the album with a real winner!

'Happy Heart'

Overall, I’m pretty sure that I can confidently say that my appreciation for this album has gone up considerably after having scrutinized for the sake of this review (so I would suggest writing a 2900+ word review in order to maximize your listening pleasure) - Like I said, it takes awhile to grow on you. And after listening to (THOROUGHLY) what really struck me about the album, as a whole, and perhaps even Etana’s music is general is just how much of herself she puts into her songs. We can question about the inspiration of songs or even exactly where they come from and from whom etc. But what you cannot question is just how passionate she is about this music and it’s something, to my opinion, which is evident on every song on ”Free Expressions”. That adds character to an album which is overflowing with spirit and charm and when the eyes and ears are focused in on her and her alone, it once again helps to further Etana as one of THE names to know in Reggae music in 2011 and beyond.

Rated: 4.85/5
VP Records
CD + Digital

Etana The Strong One

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