Tuesday, February 1, 2011

'Time To Shine': A Review of "Be Ever" by Blaak Lung

In retrospect, 2010 was not only a very good year for Reggae music, in general, but perhaps specifically, a very good one for Reggae music from America. Typically, unlike just about everywhere else in the world (with the exception of Jamaica, which is typically afforded the word ‘Reggae’ unless otherwise noted), we don’t tend to think of ‘American Reggae’ and instead things get more and more regionalized. I can talk to you about Reggae from New York, or Florida or especially the very Reggae-rich West Coast. Without observing those inner-regional regions, however, the States, as a whole, well impressed in 2010. Of course, at the top of the line has to be the fact that two of the consensus choice of best Reggae albums of the year came from an American artist and an American based artist for an American label. Clearly I’m talking about ”Black Gold” by Toussaint and Jahdan Blakkamoore’s outstandingly and increasingly good ”Babylon Nightmare” for Lustre King Productions. In hindsight, along with all of the remarkable things about both of those projects, one of the most interesting is that they very much so fell ‘in line’ with the more ‘usual’ settings of Reggae music. And I’ll elabourate on that more later (because I’m very much hoping that the artist in question here is going to get there as well), but if you follow Reggae music to any serious degree, certainly Jahdan and Toussaint popped up on your radars last year. What else? Definitely a lot of elder acts now call the States home and we saw a very nice collection of them strike in with big releases from the likes of Apple Gabriel and Ras Midas and they were highlighted by the critically acclaimed ”Mi Deh Yah” from the US based Clinton Fearon. Also we had labels such as Footprintz Music Group [Luciano’s ”Write My Name”] and Skank Records [Ossie Dellimore’s ”Reggae Music”] with big albums and not to mention the likes of Zion High Productions (who also participated in Toussaint’s successes) and definitely Itation Records who did BIG things with a couple of mega shot riddims. And that’s just how much I pay attention - There are so many American bands that I don’t listen to or even know about and I’m sure some of those were streaking highly as well. With all that said, however, an absolute GEM of an album, ”Rooted In Inity” was somewhat lost in the shuffle, but it really helped to get the year off to a good start . . . Now, hopefully this time next year we’re not saying the same thing about ”Be Ever”.

Blaak Lung. The mind behind both of those albums is that of the California based Alan Gordon [bka Blaak Lung], a producer and artist and probably one of the most decorated of US based Reggae producers. And although his own label, GreenSphere Records isn’t as well known as some of the ones I’ve mentioned such as Lustre Kings, Zion High or Itation (again, I‘ll get to that in a moment), they’ve really managed to string together a very impressive existence and should you follow modern Reggae music on a more than casual level, chances are that you’ve ran into some of the artists with which Blaak Lung has worked or you’ve actually ran into some of the work itself. As of late, however, as far as I can tell GreenSphere hasn’t done an album which wasn’t Blaak Lung’s since 2008’s "O’Pen”, which means that Blaak Lung, the artist, has been the main focus of the entire label, at least seemingly and , at least in my opinion, they’ve suffered NONE AT ALL because of it. I don’t care who the vocalist is, Blaak Lung makes fantastic music and when he isn’t active, it’s a bad thing for the genre as a whole and when he is, making LOVELY riddims for himself and others, American Reggae, Virgin Islands Reggae . . . Reggae from Indonesia - All of it is a MUCH better place simply on the fact of the circumstance and, presumably, it would be much easier for Blaak Lung to vibe a Blaak Lung album (having an unparalleled level access to . . . Himself) than for anyone else. And when you have results as he had last year with ”Rooted In Inity“, you really get into an issue of nothing being broken, thus nothing needing fixing. So with that being said, perhaps my initial feeling when I saw that Blaak Lung was returning just a year later with yet another new album, ”Be Ever” - Pretty surprised - Weren’t very warranted at all. Now, you shouldn’t be surprised either (because I’ve been alluding to it for this entire review) that what I would like to be able to do is to begin to move Blaak Lung’s music closer and closer to some of the aforementioned big and breakout pieces and stars of last year. In the review of last year’s ”Rooted In Inity” album, I openly celebrated the fact that we - Really heavy listeners and followers of Reggae music - essentially had Blaak Lung’s music to ourselves because he wasn’t very well known to most of the Reggae listening world despite obviously making world class Reggae music. Well, what a difference a year can make: I’m ready to share! Not too much actually, I don’t want to see Blaak Lung go ‘mainstream’ (whatever that means these days), but I definitely would like to see more light shone in his direction and I don’t think that putting him in a category as some of his slightly more well known peers is a stretch at all and there’s no time like the present. To my opinion, in terms of a marketing/publicity standpoint ”Be Ever” couldn’t have come a better time for the producer/artist and hopefully he’s thinking of a way to push it (although if he continues to make albums at this rate, and he might, he won’t have to wait very long for a next chance at getting it right) on a bit of a higher level. What remains, of course, is the question of whether or not the album is any good? It’s pretty good, but even more importantly, to my opinion, the album is a very strong display of the excellent music of Blaak Lung.

I promised myself that I’d try to refrain from comparing this album to its predecessor, but what I will say is that, just like ”Rooted In Inity”, one of Blaak Lung’s very established peers, the brilliant Tuff Lion, once again plays throughout the album, so immediately you know what type of music levels you’re dealing with. Also, just like that album (and this is more of a general characterization of Blaak’s music than a straight comparison), this album exhibits a great deal of quality control. I don’t like every song here (I’m about to tell you about a song I don’t like actually), but there is nothing on this album, AT ALL, which even hints at being BAD vibes. Still, with that being said, following an opener in, ‘Word Sound’, which is essentially an intro (and a nice one) the first full song on Blaak Lung’s brand new album ”Be Ever” is probably my least favourite on the entire piece, ‘Pushing Through’. Again, this tune is not a bad song and with its ‘BIG’ sounding riddim, it’s well going to catch attentions. The ‘problem’ I had with this song, however, is that it’s kind of mechanical - I made the comment listening to it to a friend of mine (biggup Linya) that it sounded like Blaak had a recording session and this was the first tune of the day that he sang - But that’s just the way it sounds to me and you’ll (hopefully) tune in on the lyrics which are very nice and the strength of the tune. Blaak is very quick to right the ship with the title track and the album’s definitive highpoint in next. I was SO interested in hearing this song because I didn’t know what direction he would take it in (for some reason I was expected something such as ‘Be Natty’ by Tuff Lion from the ”Utterance” album ) and when I realized what he did, I was very impressed. The song is about personal perseverance on several levels and it really makes its mark by its end and does so over a delightful riddim which I am FRUSTRATINGLY sure sounds familiar to my ears for some reason.

“Many signs are right in front of us
That babylon is on its last legs
So what that means for us-
It’s gonna get harder
So what that means for us-
We’ve gotta be stronger
Don’t give up
Look out and you can see the finish line
Don’t give up
Cause we’ve almost won the race”

The tune is LOVELY and no confusion exists as to why it was made the title track. Next is a bit of a lover’s piece in ‘For The First Time’ over a STERLING one-drop riddim. This tune I like because it’s not the typical ‘Baby baby I love you’ type of a love song, but instead what it appears to be is one which kind of recaps how Blaak met his special lady (thus the title - “from the first time I seen you, I wanted you”). The tune also just sounds so nice from a strictly sonic point-of-view and is one of the best on the album in that respect as well as in general. Also, I think I’ll mention the tune which follows ’From The First Time’, ’Getting Older’, because it kind of makes a similar leap in terms of being a very obligatory type of a song (a ‘Mama song’ in this case) on a Reggae album, but listening to it, again, it’s also a different type of a vibes. This song is actually a big ‘Thank You’ from Blaak Lung to BOTH of his parents who he apparently has a very healthy respect for and so many times I listen to songs where you’ll see an artist have that type of reverence for one parent (usually Mama) and a great deal of disdain or just indifference to the other and in this case Blaak exalts the qualities of both and how much of an impression they made on him and how thankful he is. This is a song which should just make you feel good and although it does have a direct significance and cause, I’m almost sure Blaak also had that in mind (and I believe I once saw a video of someone interviewing a man who claimed to be Blaak Lung‘s Father, incidentally). Also, later you’ll check the tune ‘Marijuana’ which covers another very usual Reggae base and, again, Blaak Lung, very refreshingly, doesn’t take the tune in its more standard course and, instead, favours to do things just a touch different, but the song doesn’t stretch ANYTHING and fits almost perfectly into the flow of the album (and it also comes with its own prelude which is simply amazing and not to be missed).

In my opinion, Blaak Lung’s true talents lie in the production side and, to no surprise at all, the music throughout ”Be Ever” borders on the spectacular. And as the album goes on, it gets to the point where I don’t even think I actually appreciated, initially, just how well done the riddims here are. Example you say??? One of my personal favourite compositions sits behind the tune ‘To Know’ which is a bit of a social commentary. The riddim there is just so nice and easy that you kind of wish Blaak had given it to us in a bit of an extended form and he uses it to maximum effect in delivering a big tune. ‘Truth & Rights’ is another tune with a very ‘BIG’ sound to it and it also happens to be one of the best songs on the whole of the album as well. Blaak kind of changes his delivery just a bit and goes after the song in somewhat of a fiery spoken word type of conveyance.

“Like Daniel thrown in the lion’s den
But we’ll never get eaten
Like, Shadrach, Meshach and Ibednego
Tossed in the fire but they never get burned
Like the brothers and sisters of the day
Holding firm for the love of Jah
Holding firm for the love of Jah”

“We are the servants of The Most High
We are the soldiers of The Most High
We sing ‘bout truth & rights”

From out of the fire (and not getting burned) (of course) of that tune we get a nice and cool breeze on the very next song on ”Be Ever”, the very pleasant ‘We Made It Up’. This song moves in an inspirational direction and what really kind of struck me about it was the kind of ‘simple confidence’ that Blaak Lung emits in his tones. He’s speaking (actually) about all of the things the oppressed people of the world have endured, but if you listen to HOW he says it, it’s almost like he’s saying - And if we need to do it again . . . That’s not a problem - We’re ready!

The second half and latter stages of the album also offer very strong musical highlights as well as ‘Prepare’, the album’s only official combination which features VI Reggae superstar, Pressure Busspipe. I’m a huge fan of Pressure’s (so are you) (and so is Blaak Lung apparently and thankfully) and I was actually excited just to see him present here. As expected, he doesn’t disappoint, he almost never does, and he and Blaak Lung push a thoroughly message-packed and dazzling vibes on the tune and as is most often the case these days, Pressure is in a fine lyrical form.

“Afrika, it is my home and destination
Ghetto youths fi know seh repatriation
Marcus Garvey Starliner haffi sail
Nothing can stop the wicked from fail
Yow, know your roots and culture
Babylon only waan fi nyam your flesh like vulture
Dem go bow to dem idol gods and sculpture
Yow, Rastafari’s the lone conquer
Reaching out to all sun-burnt faces
With those Red, Gold and Green laces
Babylon ah try fi trick wi inna dem maize yeah
But we still amazing”

You probably recognized a couple of lines from Pressure’s MASSIVE old tune ‘Zion Is Home’, but it definitely worked in this case. Also functioning properly is that GORGEOUS riddim behind ‘How Could You’, with that very strong drum supporting Blaak Lung’s praising tune as he poignantly asks, “How could you live your life without acknowledging your creator?” There’s also a next lover’s song ‘You’re Special’ - I really like this tune - It’s one of the upful on the tune and while it is more typical than the earlier such selection, ‘From The First Time, it’s still a unique vibes and it’s definitely going to get more than a few heads knocking (including yours) (and mine). ‘Too Much Mix Up’ sounds strange. It just does. But it’s an excellent song and for some reason it was the first song on the album that I ended up hearing and I’ve been more than just impressed ever since. It comes over so easy and the riddim, although completely minimal, is an utter JOY to hear and Blaak Lung actually seems to change things up to perform near his best on it as well. And that big tune is chased by another in ‘Life Joy’ with another simply fantastic riddim. I mean . . . The year isn’t a month old while I’m writing this, but an album, anyone, is going to have to REALLY do something special to top the sonic feel of ”Be Ever” and on that note it would have been one of the better of 2010 as well, in a year full of such enjoyable sounds. As for the final full song on the album, ’Keep Climbing’, just like the first - It isn’t amongst my favourites, but in this instance I think it’s starting to grow on me and I wouldn’t be surprised if on my next full listen through it grows even stronger to my senses. The actual final thing heard on the album, ‘Black Ites Gold & Green’, is essentially an outro and a HUGE one at that as Blaak Lung gives a final thanks to say goodbye.

And I also briefly want to draw attention to the backup singers on ”Be Ever”. Credited as Nasambu Wamalwa and Alreca Smith (whose name sounds familiar), they do an exceptional job, particularly Wamalwa who is THE main backing voice heard.

Overall, what I’m feeling after having wrapped this one up is a sense of how PROFESSIONAL the album is done. I stressed the music here enough, certainly, but you really get the feel that so much, if not everything, of what turned out to be the ”Be Ever” album was rather carefully planned out and even if that isn’t true, then the people, particularly Blaak Lung of course, involved just simply know what they’re doing. The basis of this review, however, is to see if this is an album which can really take Blaak Lung’s career and popularity to the proverbial ‘next level’ and while he may not actually care and someone like me - If I’m the ONLY one listening - I don’t ultimately don’t care either, but I think it would be so nice if a lot of the fans who got into people like Toussaint, Jahdan Blakkamoore and others in 2010 have ‘hung around’ and stumbled upon Blaak Lung in 2011. If they are going to, what they’ll find in ”Be Ever” is yet another beautifully crafted stop in a career which is seemingly ready to shine. Well done.

Rated: 4/5
GreenSphere Records
+ Digital
Blaak Lung

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