Wednesday, January 30, 2013

'. . . To Those Who Wait': A review of "Traffic Light" by Smiley

The wait is over. To be patient as a fan of music, or really as a fan of anything, is a bit of a contradiction in my opinion. Fans, by definition, are not patient creatures. They want what they want when they want it where they want it and any excuse what they… we, cannot have what we want when we want it, even if makes absolutely perfect sense, is beyond our collective comprehension and always will be. There is currently a Reggae fan on Jupiter who cannot, at all, grasp exactly why his favourite act (he's probably a Midnite fan) cannot tour his planet at least once during his lifetime - who cares about that whole lack of oxygen thing? Not his problem. We're an impatient lot and, actually, it's just another example of how passionate music fans can be which, ultimately, is a great thing. Personally, I think that I'm a bit more on the patient side, which is likely because I listen to way too much music (if that is actually possible) (and it isn't), but I've noticed that being patient can turn out really well at times. In terms of albums, 2012 would have been a very good demonstration of that as the year would FINALLY deliver what was probably Reggae's most anticipated debut album in a really long time, "Crying For The Nation", by burgeoning superstar, I-Octane. Because he has had so much success over the past few years, Octane's case is different (not saying he hasn't had his struggles, but everyone KNEW I-Octane was going to be what he became long before he became it), but I also look back at last year and find a case very similar to the one with which we deal today. That came in the form of "A New Day" from Jah Marnyah, my own personal selection as the year's best debut album. Like our artist today, Marnyah had been someone who was a full on veteran and had experienced so much of the successes and the tribulations that making Reggae music for a living offered before he delivered his first project - and that isn't all they had in common. Like Marnyah, I had been a fan from virtually the first listen that I had of an up and coming, incredibly talented artist from out of Aruba who went by the name of Smiley. I wasn't the only one either, Smiley didn't waste much time in attracting a great deal of attention and there was a time, three or four years ago, when he was easily one of the most paid-attention to newcomers on the scene and seemingly well on his way to stardom… and he still is.
'Dem A Wonder' featuring Junior Kelly digital single [2009]
So what was so interesting about Smiley? The first time I recall tuning into his music was on an EXCELLENT single called 'Dem A Wonder' which featured Junior Kelly and was just a wonderful song, in retrospect, maybe even one of the finest I've heard from since the turn of the century. It was a great song! Further singles would show Smiley to be someone who just really had such a pleasing style, It was one which was, inherently, so nice to listen to and very easy to enjoy, but at the same time Smiley didn't sacrifice substance for his flare and his music, ultimately, was something which was probably equally pleasing to new and more educated fans of Reggae music. In 2010, he would deliver a fine six track EP, "Lively Road" (the best Reggae EP of that year in my opinion) and really just continue to impress. Last year he didn't seem to be as active as far as releasing singles, but apparently there was a reason for that. 
"Lively Road" EP [2010]
He was about to end the wait. Late last year arrived an album by the name of "More Love" from someone named Smiley which we surely mentioned somewhere along the way. I saw it, by name, and got extremely excited, but that Smiley (from out of Gwada, also very talented and you should definitely check out his album) wasn't the one whose debut I'd been waiting on for… a really long time. However, by coincidence, we wouldn't even get four weeks deep into the new year without, THE Smiley delivering his own debut, the much, much (MUCH) anticipated "Traffic Light" (incidentally, the other Smiley looks a little like Maxi Priest, this Smiley looks a little like Machel Montano). The album comes via the same Love & Unity Music label for whom Smiley has done much of his previous work in the past and, as you would expect, is a top class project. We'll get into the music in a second, but the cover for this album is very interesting and, alone, is probably going to sell a few copies and a few songs and grab attention in general. Smiley has recorded for quite a few different labels in the past. The aforementioned 'Dem A Wonder' track was actually produced by the venerable Al.Ta.Fa.An. imprint. He's also done extensive work for Rootdown Records, as well as House of Riddim, Urban Tree and others. Like I said, when he initially came up, there was so much in the way of discussion and anticipation given to Smiley from fans and industry people alike so, as he enters the releasing stage of his first album, it already seems, in some aspects, that he's had such a full career and this is with, again, a very significant door just now opening for Smiley. And he's also well been afforded the opportunity to record with and to develop as an artist with some REALLY talented people who make some equally as impressive music and, because of that, not only was I looking forward to 'Smiley's album' existing, I was also well looking forward to being a STRONG release and I didn't get very far through it before figuring out that it wasn't at all going to be a disappointment. Not every talented artist out there has a skillset which translate to an album with only themselves to keep the listener entertained and engaged in what is being said, but Smiley is clearly someone who does. The only remaining question, however, is exactly how good is "Traffic Light", an album I've been waiting for about four years now. Let's find out! 

Obviously it isn't too difficult for me to find a situation comparable to what Smiley has done thus far, but as far as trying to make a contrast to someone in regards to his style, I'm struggling. As I alluded to earlier (or at least I tried to), he very much has a wonderful PRESENTATION of his music and I can't think of anyone who actually sounds similar that would compare (actually, to make an obvious 'sketch', Smiley's style is probably somewhere between Maikal X's and Ziggi Recado's, but I wouldn't necessarily say that he sounds similar to either at any given time). So, we'll well call him one of a kind and hopefully Smiley has just dropped what is going to be the first of many, with his new album, "Traffic Light" which gets up and going with one of its strongest efforts and a song which very much demonstrates what I mean when I say his music has a great presence to it, the ultra-clever 'Red Light'. I had a great time listening to this one over and over before coming to a conclusion of what I thought of it, but it was always excellent. The song, to me, is one which is speaking of people who have loss their way in life and aren't doing the best things for themselves. What really struck me about this one, lyrically, is that Smiley almost seems to acknowledge that this is a part of life and because of that, you don't get this completely negative type of a view on something which so many people go through at times. I think it is a brilliant piece and the sonics of that song would seem to portend it a future single, but I can say that about almost every song on this album. Big start. 

"Chaotic situation, everything is out of hand
Dem say 'rules are to be broken, better take what you can'
Like speed-racing, running through the stoplight
Risk everything, put your life on the line
We all know, life is full of opportunities
We all know, different strokes for different folks
On our own way - we are law-abiding citizens"

Next in is a composition which is downright dazzling, 'Premeditated Murder' which, ostensibly, sounds like a social commentary, but it's actually about a woman who leaves a trail of broken men behind her. It will, however, take you awhile to arrive at the point where you can sift through the… fantasticness (not a word) of the vibes of it all. It is spectacular, has an utterly infectious chorus and won't soon leave your mind. And wrapping up the opening batch of tracks from "Traffic Light" is the album's first combination, 'Is This Real', which features Smiley alongside the sweet singing Shirma Rouse. It's kind of a love song in a duet style and even though it took more than a few spins to grow on me, when it did, it REALLY did. Rouse is a great singer and she really makes a fine duo with Smiley. 

If you've followed Smiley's career prior the release of this album, then you know that he's very varied and colourful in terms of his subjects and that's a trait which continues throughout "Traffic Light". Smiley really does focus heavily on the love/relationship song on the album and if you recall he had a sizable hit from a few years back now, by the name of 'Distance' (which can be found on the aforementioned "Lively Road" EP, along with its WICKED video), so he's no stranger at all to the topic. Along with 'Premeditated Murder' and 'Is This Real', check a tune such as the heavy 'No More'. Here is another song which took a minute to grab me a bit and when it finally did, it certainly had a great deal to do with that beautiful pulsing riddim behind it. 'Mrs. Wrong' is another nice song (and probably better than any song I've mentioned thus far with the exception of the opener). This tune is the second combination track on "Traffic Light" and it features Hip-Hopper, Bishop Lamont. I've never been a Rap fan, but I definitely enjoy what Lamont brings to this tune which has such a powerful vibe, but also a tempered one which, as the subject of the song would dictate, really takes the listener through a wide array of emotions. That's another excellent piece of musical presentation, as I've said in the past, when the emotion of the song matches the emotion of what is being said and, again, that's a big skill of Smiley's. the very familiar 'Appreciation' is another favourite of mine here and I like almost everything about this one. 

"I appreciate your love and all the things we share
Through good and bad times woman, you're here, my baby
I appreciate your love and all the things we share
Through good and bad times woman, you're here, my baby

You are my best friend, my Sister, my Mother, my rescue
I couldn't see myself going through a storm without you
Cause you're the perfect type and I'm a fool sometimes
Woman do believe me when I express myself and say:

I appreciate your love and all the things we share
Through good and bad times woman, you're here, my baby
I appreciate your love and all the things we share
Through good and bad times woman, you're here, my baby"

This song, although unwaveringly straight-forward, is kind of unique. So many times you hear love songs which turn up the LOVE aspect so immensely that it kind of becomes non-relatable, but this one kind of simplifies things down to saying "thank you" to someone, for being there when you need them. The final such song on the album, 'This Girl', is another real winner to my ears, which is really going to make an impact on anyone who ever woke up one day and noticed that they just happened to be in love ["Yow, it's been far too long. Phone calls, emails, I even wrote her a song"]. And I should also mention 'Unconditional' which spreads a love of a different type as Smiley gives thanks and love to the most important being walking the planet - Mama. 

Not surprisingly for me I do favour the more social/inspirational material on "Traffic Light", which is a big deal because, as I just said, there is some really strong material from all types on this album. The best of them all, by the slimmest of margins, would be 'Sound Di Alarm', a booming social commentary.

"There's a murder committed in the open and no one gets involved
People asking questions like 'where is the love?'
There aren't any heroes anymore
Nothing in the world to fight for
It's all about the more money-making and increasing cash flow
Pretending to care, but it's all for the show
Good people always end up in the back row
Yow them bad vibes gotta go 

Sound the alarm!
Every man and every woman
Come together make a joyful song
Come together and sing along
To this one!”

This tune is an exciting one and it's one which well stimulates the mind and forces you to think about what is said, but while you take your time to make your decision about you've heard, it's also going to amaze your senses and really get you active as a signature moment from "Traffic Light". Speaking of lights, the tune which you would have thought might've made for a great start, 'Green Light' is probably my second favourite song on this album. I like how the track is almost the other side of the sentiment expressed  on 'Red Light'. Where the former was about people making impatient decisions and moving too quickly to do the wrong thing, this piece is about taking your time and doing things correctly the first time, even though it may be a harder and more tedious course, ultimately. This selection also happens to be absolutely delightful in its sound and, I have to say that I like both tunes as single compositions, but the fact the other one is present on the album really makes them both even stronger in my opinion and it was a BRILLIANT concept to do them both here. 'Stay Alert', which actually follows 'Green Light' on the album kind of builds on that as well in speaking about being more cautious and taking your time. It also comes back and speaks of being confident and really minding yourself and I have to give a GIANT credit to Smiley for one line here which resonated with me so greatly. 


BOOM! It's alright not to be able to help everyone or do EVERYTHING someone else wants you to and I really like when people say more actual, real-life things like that, instead of pushing a message which may ultimately be unattainable in some instances. 'Why Hard', with its old-school charm also won me over very quickly, as did 'Keep the Joy', the albums most familiar tune and final combination, this one featuring Reggae star, Anthony B. The song rides the gorgeous Strength Riddim from the aforementioned Al.Ta.Fa.An (they should really just dust that thing off and give it a second run, it was such a nice track) (Anthony B also had a big tune alongside Mark Wonder on it as well by the name of 'Don't Cry') and its presence on "Traffic Light" isn't really much of a surprise at all and it still is a lovely song, a few years on. 'Celebrate' is also one of the best songs on this album, which pushes a great message of celebrate your life for what you have, even if it isn't much and even if you have more problems than pleasures, celebrate what's going good for you and stop worrying so much about what isn't. The vibes on that song are captivating to say the least as well. 'Gratitude' is a song expressing Smiley's… gratitude to fans and label and everyone else who stuck by him throughout the years. It outlines where he's been in his career and all of the struggles he's experienced and all of the blessings and the prominence that he's enjoyed as well. Given the premise of this review, 'Gratitude' is a very fitting creation to have on this album and it's one which shows that fans weren't the only one's waiting for Smiley's next step. Finally, this album does have an outro, which is basically a poem given by a female which ties up the concept of the title of the album before, wonderfully, sending the listener back for a second listen - again, it's an excellent idea and the kind of 'revolving' concept behind this album is yet another very enjoyable and entertaining facet of it. 
Overall, I have to say that I'm very limited in terms of my actual critiques of "Traffic Light" - it is a very COMPLETE album. The only thing that I would say (and be assured that I am the only nerd who is going to say this, so do feel free to ignore the rest of this sentence and probably the one after it) is that despite carrying sixteen tracks in full, it kind of seems short - checking in at several minutes less than an hour, with only one track exceeding four minutes in length. But ultimately, I suppose that leaving your fans wanting more (and even if it was three hours long, if I enjoyed it enough (and I did) I probably would have said the same thing) is a good idea in some respects. As I expected, Smiley's style is one which translates to making an album SO well, so you get this really powerful experience on so many of his songs, even some of the slower ones, which lasts well after they've completed. Smiley also shows himself to be a very appealing writer and when you have that quality, which allows you to make music virtually about any subject, and combine it with Smiley's ability to package and PRESENT his music, you're dealing with something special in my opinion. "Traffic Light" is recommended to fans of all types of Reggae music, new and old and while I didn't AT ALL enjoy waiting for it and I'll probably be complaining if he doesn't make another one next year - It was definitely worth the wait. Well done!

Rated: 4.35/5
Love & Unity Music 
CD + Digital [CD releases March 12]

Review #413

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