Sunday, April 29, 2012

'Odd Expectations': A review of "Modern Roots" by Norris Man

You're capable. Listening to good music and being able to listen to good music, in my opinion, is really one of the greatest joys and experiences that life has to offer. Because of what we do around here and just how much awareness and work it might require at times, I may seem as if my passion isn't always the highest, but in the most stripped away basic sense, this is all about celebrating one of the most powerful aspects of life. And it's always an enjoyable set of circumstances and can become even more so when I'm able to listen to some of my favourites doing what they do best. Surely you can relate. Whatever your favourite song is RIGHT NOW, stop reading this review and go and play it and when you get back think about how it just made you feel. It's amazing and nothing in the world can do it exactly like that. Still, I have to say that there are things and there are people, which is why we're here today, who, for maybe not the finest of reasons, can make listening to music and listening to GOOD music and even more interesting experience for several different reasons. The most obvious example of this, of course, is Vaughn Benjamin and Midnite. He/They have been so incredibly active and just as . . . Unusual, that even before you get into the music of "Random New Album" by Midnite, if you care at all and have any history in hearing them, you're already wondering about what's going on. Are you about to hear one of the greatest albums of all time or are you about to have to throw yourself into some seriously high level studies in order to follow along. Midnite is a perfect, albeit an odd, example because they've kind of become this mystic entity in Reggae to a great deal of people (and I mean that in a good way) (I think history is going to LOVE Midnite when it gets its hands on them), but an even more compelling example of someone who just really makes it a FUN thing to get into their music, before you actually do it, has been 'hiding' in plain site for years. It's the wonderfully enigmatic, oft-genius & oft-master of confusion, Norris Man. Unlike Benjamin and co. the interest in watching Norris Man isn't birthed in the theatre of the unexpected in that exact manner, instead it comes by way of simply not knowing which form the chanter will bring. When he's on top I'll maintain that he's probably one of the more talented modern Roots Reggae artists around, weaving together some truly spectacular tunes. When he's somewhere lower on the scale he's . . . not . . . That stuff. 

Because of that, I think it's safe to say that Norris Man hasn't really gotten that credit and that consistent level of stardom that many of his more famous peers have attained. And unlike many others such as a Mark Wonder or a Prince Theo, where it's more difficult to explain, much of Norris' career has pretty much been in synch. He gets a great deal of shine when he makes good music and not so much when he doesn't. You can look at that from tune to tune, but surely a great way to track what he's done and where he's been is by looking at his album releases (how convenient!). Again, when he has it together such as on "Persistence" and "World Crisis" (still occasionally find myself going back and forth as to which of those I prefer and I'm probably the only one who think they're even remotely close in quality) - the results are borderline spectacular at times. On the other hand, when he's not totally precision pointed, we get pieces like "Hey Woman" and "Heat Is On". When you place all of that together what you have is someone who, although they may not get calls of being "the greatest" by many, are still FAR too talented to ignore by people like You and I and one of the most captivating figures around.  

When he's good
So it should come to no large surprise that when I learned that Norris Man once again had an album shortly forthcoming, I immediately took an interest. It's a big deal for me and it's made even more interesting when you see where it comes from. "Modern Roots" is the very first album from the Trenchtown chanter for a label by the name of Nordic Steel from out of Sweden. Swedish Reggae has definitely been on the rise for the past few years with, most notably, the wickedly talented Million Stylez (with whom members involved with Nordic Steel got their start), achieving great successes and to have an artist such as Norris Man doing an album is a great thing. Reportedly, the circumstances surrounding the album's work is somewhat impromptu and unplanned as Norris Man was originally to voice alongside a friend of his, Advance, (more on him later) for the label, prior to taking a great liking to Nordic Steel's vibes. When he did, he kept coming back and kept coming back and now you're looking at the result of his many visits. When I first saw the name - Nordic Steel - I thought it pretty new to my eyes, but after looking them up I noticed that they had done a few things that I had enjoyed, most notably was a big tune from Lutan Fyah by the name of 'Dip Him' from a few years back. The label has also worked with the likes of Cali P, Turbulence, Perfect and others such as the aforementioned Million Stylez. So not only do we pretty much know what Nordic Steel brings to the proverbial table in terms of their actual sound, it's also clear that although Norris' is the biggest name they've ever done a full album with (following the likes of Advance, Essay, Rebellious and Iman Russ, who is one of the heads of the label), this isn't a case of some completely unknown group of people pooling their money together to throw some rubbish towards a big name. This is a respectable project and Nordic Steel brings a lot to it. With all of that being said, the only real remaining question is whether we're dealing with the GOOD and focused Norris Man or some other version. I'll confess that I was wrong here because I had bad feeling about this one but, for the most part, he's sharp. 

The twist here is because of, as I alluded to, Nordic Steel's sound. They're not known for being this powerhouse of a Roots Reggae producer, they make very 'colourful' music and they also mix in quite a bit of Hip-Hop (Iman Russ' album is a Hip-Hop album). So I saw the title of the album and expected a very straight forward Roots album and instead, they were thinking that 'modern Roots', meant a more 'open-minded' style of the genre. You know if you read our work to any degree of consistency that I'm not really a fan of Hip-Hop, however, I am a big fan of a good Norris Man. So which one dominates here? PROBLEMS! "Modern Roots" starts putting me through tribulations with its very first track, 'Dutty Babylon'. When I first heard this tune I thought it was pretty easily dismissed as being some "random Hip-Hop" vibed song and that's what I was going to call it, but after listening to it about five times (it just so happens to be placed on the album before the my favourite song and when I load it backwards (which is just what I do), you hear that great song and then this over and over again until you go back) I started to change to my mind. Yes, you're going to hear that very 'electric' riddim and no it isn't something that I hear and am absolutely in awe of, but when you hear what Norris Man does to it, it starts to impress a little, despite the fact that he does turn some of his lyrical flames in the direction of Bugs Bunny! The opener is a perfect example of the paradox that this album is at times: I may not like how it sounds, but for some reason I do kind of enjoy what I'm hearing. Next, as I said, is the single best moment on the entire album and my favourite song from the artist in quite some time (from 'When Your Time Is Up' with Pressure Busspipe), 'King of Your Soul'. BOOM!

“Haile Selassie is the King of your soul
Only Rastafari gonna take control
Righteousness must be blessed
So tell di wicked man seh him fi rest
Haile Selassie is the King of your soul
Only Rastafari gonna take control
Ah tell mi bout dem mighty, ah tell mi bout dem bold

Cold heart gonna lose dem soul
Wickedness bound to go down
When you hear di trumpet and di congoman-
Sound di sound
There is no one to control us
Remember dat a Jah go before us
Always HIM I praise!
We won’t get played, smarter than di system
Rastaman create his own!”

The song is quintessential Norris Man at his best. If ANYONE else does that same song, you have to ask questions because no one can really make a song like that work besides he can because, for all of his idiosyncrasies and peculiarities, when at his best, he always seems to wok things out. That's what he does on this MASSIVE selection. The song which brings the beginning trio from "Modern Roots" to a close is a very interesting one (again) because in the midst of everything going on here, you actually get three love songs as well. This one, 'My Lady', while not my favourite of them, is still a pretty nice tune with its very moody kind of vibes. And later you run into the other pair of tracks for Norris Man's special lady, 'For You' and 'Give Thanks For Your Love'. I don't really have a bad thing to say about either of these songs. The latter is just slightly better and both are pretty nice, albeit unspectacular, and as far all three of the love songs - well done - not real highlights for me here (although as I type this, I am really liking 'Give Thanks For Your Love'), but definitely a nice addition. 

'Gimmi Di Weed'

Along with the opener, you really start to see a major shift in the vibes on the album in it's final four tracks where a more of a Hip-Hop vibe (usually) takes over. The only song that I actually dislike here is the first of the four, 'Make The World Go Right'. You'll hear it and IMMEDIATELY be able to comprehend why that is. It's not just a Hip-Hop track, but it features Norris Man actually rapping on a rapper's cadence and pacing and it's just not a song for me. Later on is the very aggressive 'Cyan Diss Rastaman' which isn't bad at all and actually sounds like something that would've been on Cali P's recent set, "Unstoppable" and nearly on that level as well. The final song, 'I'm My Own President', definitely intrigued me by its title. The tune is a pure rap song and features Iman Russ mostly with Norris Man mixed in. I can actually deal more with this type of tune because it's a rapper rapping instead of Norris Man doing it. Certainly it isn't one of the lasting pieces here for me, but it's so much oriented and geared in another genre, that I don't have a problem with it and it doesn't have that awkwardness present on 'Make The World Go Right'. As for the other song within the final four . . . Well it isn't Hip-Hop at all. It is a GORGEOUS piece of Dancehall and the album's obligatory herbalist tune, 'Gimmi Di Weed'. The tune features a riddim which I do know quite well, the Arabian Nights from last year (HUGE Capleton tune on the same vibe), but what I didn't know was that it was apparently produced by Million Stylez (small world). That thing is CRAZY sounding like something from the old Main Street days - just an intoxicatingly fun and chaotic composition. 

Not surprisingly, aside from that huge moment, the vast majority of the main attractions offered by "Modern Roots", for me, are the more cultural/spiritual sets, which, even when compared to GREAT Norris Man, remains in good standing at times. Along with 'King of Your Soul', check the social commentary directed towards the younger generation, 'Youths of Today'. There's so much going on in this tune that the case of it featuring Advance isn't the most ostensibly interesting thing about it. What I like here is that Norris really does go far in personalizing the track for himself and the listener as well ("what would you say if your son becomes the president?') by just making sure the children themselves are staying focused as well as the parents who are charged with really ensuring the safety and progression of the future leaders of the planet. Advance (who sounds a bit like Bramma) (and is Bounty Killer's nephew) follows suit, making for one fine combination. The SWEET 'The Crown of True Glory' is another LARGE praising track and it should be said that with other tunes like the MAMMOTH 'HIM Neva Fail', this is one of the artist's strength in his writing and generally making music. Here, he really displays some powerful moments in this very serene track such as the tune's opening which is just gorgeous. 

“King Rastafari is my everything
King Rastafari is my heart and soul
There is no other love
Its only HIM alone that wears the crown
A crown of true glory, worthy to be praised” 

Next is 'End of Your Days' which is also not to be skipped and is somewhat comparable, in vibes, to the tune directly preceding it on the album (which I just told you about). This one is just slightly more broad to my ears, with the foundation idea of the track being to appreciate life to the fullest and to do things which are gratifying to His Majesty. The kind of easy nature here also helps it along because it gives it a subtly 'observing' tone from the point of view of Norris Man which is really interesting. The frenetic 'Lion and The Lamb' is another winner on "Modern Roots" and it's a song which kind of bridges the gap between Roots, Dancehall and Hip-Hop because of just how hype and intense it is, but it's still firm Roots Reggae. The fire-breathing Rebellious joins in for a wholly big anthem like track which is still very lyrical and a BOOM! Lastly is another impressive set in 'Caesar's Place', a piece I was really looking forward to hearing based on its title as well and it definitely doesn’t disappoint. 

“No matta what di people do
No matta what di people say
No matta what di people do
This is Caesar’s place

Kingdom of vanity, is a kingdom of doom
Their old time philosophy about cow jump over moon
But I know for sure - my dish won’t run with my spoon”

Obviously this one is specified for the sake of comparison, but it's a song about living in oppression and attempting to overcome it. I can see how you can say this one is a bit bleak, but there is a HOPE in there also, just as there is a hope throughout this entire project. 

Norris Man
Overall, I'm going to qualify it just a bit, but I have no big problem here and it's a better album than I was anticipating. The mix isn't that harsh in most instances, even for me. And on top of that, like I said, anytime you can find Norris Man in a fine form, you have something potentially special on your hands and ears and we well get flashes of brilliance here, like with 'King of Your Soul', a tune which stands in fine comparison to the best of just about any piece of work from the artist and you have to take notice of that - That these sessions birthed THAT type of work. So, regardless of where we actually place it as far as quality, "Modern Roots" should be noted as being one of the most interesting albums in one of the most fascinating and captivating careers in Reggae today - Norris Man

Rated: 3.50/5
Nordic Steel

Review #353

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