Tuesday, March 22, 2011

'Socially Speaking': A Review of "Plead My Cause" by Junior X

I find that when I write reviews for Reggae albums, and Roots Reggae albums in particular, I often use very consistent and applicable (at least I hope they’re applicable) terms to define certain types of songs. And surely if you’ve read my work to any grand degree you’ve noticed them as well and although I’m the one who’s likely to put up the biggest fight when it’s mentioned that Modern Roots Reggae is ‘cookie-cutter’ or ‘templated’, as I said, they are well applicable. I’m speaking of terms such as ‘praising tunes’ and ‘social commentary’ or, of course, the obligatory ‘herbalist tune’ and ‘Mama song’. Generally when you pick up an album from or just listen to a Roots Reggae artist, their output is going to fall in one of these categories (and there’s also the ‘love song’) and the skill which is displayed here comes from being able to differentiate oneself in these various matters. For example, if you REALLY want a HUGE song about the virtues of ganja who do you call? Me personally, I’d link Batch and Luciano. Those are two singers who have DEFINITELY shown themselves to be more than average in those areas and when you look at their material there you see that no one else’s songs on the subject come from that unique of a perspective at their very best. Now, say you want a song which just firms up the throne of His Imperial Majesty and identifies HIM in his wonderful characteristics and lights up his Royal ways who would be someone who would come to your mind to provide that? Without question the first name in my mind is Sizzla Kalonji. At his best Sizzla weaves three and a half minute story like symphonies which have influenced, now, a generation or two of younger artists. You might also look to Capleton, Luciano again, Fantan Mojah, Tarrus or even to an energized version of Norris Man (if you can find one around) to do a MASSIVE song for Selassie I as well. Songs about Mama and her beauty and about women in general? For that I’d look to the likes of Richie Spice as of late, and historically there’s Capleton again and Everton Blender and a line of others as well. But, when we get to the theme of Social Commentaries (which is why we’re here), things tend to open just a bit more because the issue, itself, is very broad. However, someone like Lutan Fyah has proven himself EXPLOSIVE in this area as have others as of late (like Queen Ifrica) including the quietly persevering Kingston native, Junior X.

'Cross Me Heart'

Ostensibly there’s nothing which really is going to separate Junior X from the pack of solid Rootsmen and Rootswomen of today, but when you do give his music a listen, things change and do so almost immediately. Like only a handful of others, such as Chuck Fenda (who he does resemble a bit vocally) (he also sounds just a bit like Bascom X in my opinion) and Spectacular (although far more consistent than he), Junior X is able to make these BIG sounding spiritually charged (usually) social/cultural anthem-like tunes which are at the heart of his talent, in my opinion and what is what sets him apart from the rest. Also, from that small pack, X is an OUTSTANDING lyricist. As we’ll examine shortly, he really is able to convey his messages and ideas with pretty ’terrestrial’ framing - What I mean is that his songs, on the surface at least, are quite simple and even if you don’t follow him to the letter as far as his actual intent, it’s pretty damn difficult to get lost in concepts on a Junior X record (and I can’t say the same thing about some of his more cryptic peers all the time). Last year X struck in on my radars on a HUGE scale by serving up the single best Roots Reggae song that I heard in all of 2010, ‘Cross Me Heart’, which surged on Tiger Records’ Box Guitar Riddim (biggup Sherkhan). That tune, again, had a very large and nearly overwhelming vibes to it and Junior X absolutely shined there, but it wasn’t the first spot of mastery he had shone. Previously, although seeming to exist outside of the more ‘Reggae-mainstream’ (where just about everyone else, outside of Spectacular and Bascom X) who I’ve mentioned thus far are, Junior X doesn’t seem to register on the same levels - He pretty much does his own thing and he’s been successful at it. How successful has he been? Well apparently following a sterling 2010, the call for his debut album reignited and it’s now been delivered via Revolutionary Entertainment which is also the label which manages the artiste. ”Plead My Cause” comes after years and years (more than a decade actually, according to his bio) of X plying his trade and developing and improving along the way and although, based on the ages of some of the music you’ll hear here, I believe that this album, with its tracklist, is coming at what is essentially a PERFECT time. Surely, I probably would have said the same thing at anytime over the past year or so, but particularly now where, in terms of albums, there is an opportunity (which he subsequently makes the most of) to REALLY grip the attentions of Reggae hardcore fans like you and I, Junior X and his team have come into a pretty nice bit of timing, whether intentionally or not. The album is full of songs which, similarly, hardcore fans are likely to know and the lesser known and new(er) pieces are also along that very same type of nature where they aren’t going to catch anyone by a big surprise who is a fan of Junior X and his music. At the same time, the album will serve as an excellent introduction to new fans who, presumably, will be plentiful and hopefully very interested in this album. What both groups of fans will find when they come looking for ”Plead My Cause” is an album which is definitely top notch modern Roots Reggae but, in its artist, has enough twists and turns to well make it a standout. Let’s find out exactly why!

'The Pill'

Reading through Junior X’s bio - There was a really cool story about how a friend of his (none other than veteran Daddy Screw) took him to an audition for the famed Dave Kelly and Kelly had the ear for X which said that his delivery needed a bit more work, but he had already advanced to the point of being a talented lyricist. It would apparently take X about a decade, but eventually he found his way and about a decade after that, he now finds his way, pen even sharper these days, to your ears and mind with the debut album of ‘The Prince of The Battlefield’, ”Plead My Cause”. The album opens with what is (by the slightest of margins) my absolute favourite tune present, the very clever tune, ‘The Pill’. This song, besides being lyrically excellent, is one which shows the very essence of who I feel X is as an artist - It’s very straight-forward, but it’s just different. Instead of just saying ‘down with negativity’ or ‘bun a fire pon babylon’, Junior X says:

“So babylon I wish there was a pill that I could take
To make you go away just like a headache
You’re a pain in my life -
I can’t take you
Someway, somehow, we’re gonna break you

I wish there was a knob that I could turn
Then step aside and watch you burn”

The song is a previous single which I simply didn’t pay enough attention to because it is MASSIVE and it has that ‘large’ type of sound which I mentioned and it really is a winner, especially for the keenly listening hardcore heads. Big start. Next up is another single, but one from not too long ago I believe, ‘Gangster Life’. This tune, Revolutionary Entertainment apparently liked so much that they did it as a digital single last year (and shot a video for) and it’s no mystery why - It’s gorgeous. Again, it’s another big vibed anthem track on which X sends a powerful message to the youths of the world, through a most comforting of lyrical mediums - Mama. Next we have a song in ‘One More Night’ which is the first to kind of take things outside of the social/cultural spectrum. It’s a very nicely vibed love song and one which, as I said, doesn’t take away from the specific nature of the rest of the vibes of ”Plead My Cause” being this big social album because if love isn’t a part of society and society‘s culture then what the hell is?

'Gangster Life'

I was going to wait to mention this in closing, but I think it’s maybe even more applicable now - Junior X, as a lyricist, to me strikes in the same fashion as people like Lutan Fyah and Tanya Stephens and others who just MAKE SENSE. You may not like EVERYTHING they do (and you shouldn’t), but you’ll ‘get’ it - The true nature of the song is never very far off. You see that in tunes such as the opener and a few others throughout the album and they, for me, really are the standouts here. Such a next tune would be the very strong ‘Shoot The Prophet’ which I believe is a newer selection from X and it is a MIGHTY one.

“Shoot the prophet but you cyah shoot the energy
Ignore the message but you cyah escape the penalty
Shoot the prophet but you cyan shoot the energy
Truth will always find a way

You set your plans into action
And then await your result
While the youths dem fight for survival
You make it more difficult
They’ll do anything you ask for
Because they’re down and out
And when you no longer need them
That’s when you’ll wipe them out
Indirectly you kill them
With signs that mislead them

BOOM! When I say that Junior X is a master with the social commentary, I mean he has unique ways of speaking on the things around him instead of relying upon the tried (and tired) Reggae clichés - I don’t know anyone who is building material like this and several others on the album. Another prime example of this would be a tune you should know quite well, ‘Surfer’ which was the title track of the 2009 riddim from big German imprint, Pow Pow Productions. I can remember seeing the title of that one and being damn interested in what it could possibly be about and when I heard the line - “I’m a surfer surfing the waves of life . . .” - It made crystal clear sense. You can also check the sublime ‘Ease Ya Mind’ which builds its great strength on one remarkably simple adage - Take your time! And even though I think it’s just a step below most of the others, I should also probably mention ‘Locked Away’ which is a tune which does take a bit of adapting (but not too much) and I’m still working on that one, but by all means check it out for yourself.

'Plead My Cause'

Even when Junior X does get more spiritual and cryptic to a certain degree, he doesn’t confuse the listeners with his messages and instead, he does what I feel is a wonderful trait for a writer (and one which is paramount in comprehending why I like Sizzla’s music so much) - He can make spiritual matters relatable so even though you aren’t living in his mind (and you’re not), they can mean something to you as well. Of course, this shows up most vividly on ”Plead My Cause”, the album, on ‘Plead My Cause’, the song. This tune was a great hit for X (and I believe it was his first also) and it’s no wonder why because not only is it just generally a very strong set, it’s also seriously pleasing to the ears and probably the most sonically gratifying selection on the whole of the album named after it. It’s also a great example of what I mean when I say that he’s able to make these big and anthem-like pieces because they don’t get more substantial than this one. Not too far from it, however, is ‘Not Afraid To Live’ which finds Junior X channeling his inner Frank Sinatra on a nearly STUNNING track (I know I hear a Nyah drum somewhere in there).

“The record shows
I took the blows
Been through life’s highs and lows
Still, everyday Jah give
I am not afraid
I’m not afraid to live”

Earlier we’re also treated to ‘Father Guide [Over All]which is an electric track and, although it, too, takes a bit of warming up to, this one is currently simmering for me. The moody ‘Good Salvation’ is also working on my senses presently, but this one from a lyrical perspective is, rather clearly, a DOMINANT track, so it’s not hurting at all. We also get a ‘live’ feel to ‘If You’re Asking’, a very ‘funky’ lover’s tune which I absolutely enjoyed. It’s kind of sappy, but it’s also harmless and just a nice song to listen to. And the very familiar ‘Nobody Knows’ wraps up ”Plead My Cause”. The tune comes across the People’s Cry Riddim from Chiney K and while it certainly does slow things down immediately following the title track, it’s worth it. It almost sounds like something you’d hear with Mutabaruka as X turns on a bit of the chilling Spoken Word style and the balance of the song finds him doing a kind of exhaustive and very impressive chanting (and I LOVE the backing singers on the tune who get downright angelic at times).

Finally, the album features a couple of VERY high profile combinations as both the aforementioned Queen Ifrica and superstar Gyptian. The WICKED Tony Rebel disciple chimes in on ‘Look No Further’ which is definitely one of the album’s best songs altogether. Even just existing IN THEORY when you place together two people like Junior X and Ifrica, you KNOW you’re going to get something which is SO HEAVY that it has to be a big tune and the duo certainly does not disappoint here. First of all, just sonically, the song is a ‘sexy’ track and then you get into the vibes and the messages of the tune, you get another very unusual and unique perspective on a topic which isn’t too rare in Reggae, but it’s never quite sounding like this.

“Look no further
We already in paradise
Look no further
A just we haffi mek it nice"

Queen Ifrica

"What it ahgo tek fi yah open ya eyes
Act wise
Tell yahself seh yuh nah go vote fi no more disguise
Black poor people, tek charge of di vehicle
Start drive back your families away from evil
Black man put down di rum bokkle
Stop be your own obstacle”

And you know I’ve never been the biggest of Gyptian fans, but his spot on ‘Never Stop Trying’, from last year, is only an add to that tune which although it didn’t need any help - I’m glad he’s on it.

'Never Stop Trying'

Overall, yeah! While I’m not ‘blown away’ by any means, ”Plead My Cause” is, as expected, a very big release. Besides the thought that it may’ve arrived a little passed the best time (which I disagree with), I can’t even remotely think of a proper criticism for it as a whole and even the album’s soft spots aren’t great enough to detract from it in totality. Listening through it you definitely get the feel that it’s almost a microcosm (and I hate that word) of the artist himself: Superficially, it’s just a very decent piece of modern Roots Reggae - Just as Junior X is, outwardly, just another very decent Roots Reggae artist. But when you look beneath it all the album and this artist are much more. This one is well recommended to fans of Roots Reggae new and old as Junior X delivers a most colourful and original take on the nature of a social commentary. Very well done.

Rated: 4/5
Revolutionary Entertainment/Zojak Worldwide
Junior X @ Facebook

1 comment:

  1. Interesting review. Songs sound good!
    It's an odd coincidence, by the way, that I mentioned a Jr X song in my latest post on my blog, a few days ago..