Beginnings. When we last left pioneering Virgin Islands Reggae outfit, Midnite & Vaughn Benjamin, we were taking a look at an album which has largely now gone forgotten in many respects, but was surely of no less quality, for the most part, than the current maddening level of ridiculously high projects Midnite has been doing in recent times. Although 'they' certainly are one of the most popular Reggae acts in the world, being as hyperactive as they have been throughout the years virtually guarantees that something will slip past the attentions of even the most ardent of fans and "The Way" was one of those somethings. Taking a next step beyond that taking an even greater look at things, I think that in many respects you can say that the union which would birth that album, between Midnite and Rastar Records, on nearly the whole, hasn't produced albums which have been the most popular. Saying something like that is very strange, particularly when you consider the fact that Midnite's popularity hasn't waned in the slightest over the past five or six years, during which Midnite/Rastar Records has produced now seven albums. In fact, one could argue that they're as well known today as they've ever been. That says a great deal about Midnite's fans - as I've said in the past, they may very well have the most passionate of followers of the entire modern era - who have continued to support and respect their work as the musical legend of Midnite has nearly grown to an almost irreproachable level. You simply will not find too many people saying bad things about their music at this point and that's a distinction which WILL NOT change anytime soon. So, definitely the work of Midnite alongside Rastar Records is to receive a great deal of credit because of where that musical reputation exists today because no one has made as much Midnite music in recent times than Rastar. And they've done this, as I said, without necessarily grabbing a more wide-reaching level of attention for their releases, w hen compared to Midnite records coming from I Grade Records, which are always popular. Out of the seven there have been two exceptions, 2011's "Treasure" and "Children Of Jah" from last year, both of which would go on to be quite well promoted projects (the former as a VP Records distributed product and the latter as a… I don't even know how to explain what happen with "COJ" but it is still very popular). Looking back, what has happened with Rastar has (or at least should) also draw a kind of a backwards boost in attention, as it has done for us today as we take a look back to where it all began.
I don't even know if Benjamin, himself, or anyone at Rastar could have predicted what was to occur between the two when, back in 2007, the very first Midnite album for the label, "Better World Rasta", would reach. In its time, the album actually did pretty well as far as attracting attention. While it was no where near their most popular set of that year (which would also see he releases of "Rule The Time" and "Infinite Quality", from I Grade and Lustre Kings Productions, respectively), "BWR" wouldn't be lost in the proverbial shuffle as was, arguably, the "The Way" album four years (and about twenty albums) later. But time has surely taken its toll… on its popularity and ONLY its popularity.
|Also from Midnite & Rastar Records|
As an album and on paper, "Better World Rasta" was actually afforded a very LARGE chance to succeed. The album, in its entirety, was recorded at I Grade Records' studio and the usual names and faces associated with I Grade Records' releases at the time were on board here as well. That means Laurent 'Tippy' Alfred and Tuff Lion were involved, Also having a hand in the album's creation was the legendary Black Uhuru who lent some of their classic tracks, even Yami Bolo and, of course, Vaughn Benjamin himself. While later releases from Rastar would certainly boast impressive lineups of musicians, coming right up front, "Better World Rasta" claimed not only a sizable moment for itself, but it also made fans aware that Rastar was at least capable of stringing together a WORLD CLASS project from beginning to end. What that also meant, directly, was that there was some VERY impressive music to be found on the album. Whether it became a classic or something else, you got took something positive and powerful away from listening to this album. Now, when you place it in a context of what was still to come, it resonates, today, louder than it ever did and, at least for me, "BWR" has become a wholly more significant album and only figures to grow more in that direction as time goes by and we, inevitably, near having even more Midnite albums courtesy of Rastar Records (and you KNOW that one of them will eventually come around and be that undeniable modern classic of an album). And, as if it needed even more momentum today, I can say that after hearing all of them and breaking down four (now five) for the purpose of a giant review, that "BWR" is now at least as good… and better really than every one that I've really dug into (and I guess now its time to go back and give a reviewer's ear to both "Treasure" and "Supplication To HIM" (not a problem at all), the latter was nearly exceptional if I recall correctly, so I'm looking forward to it) and, in a couple of cases, by no small margin. So, while it may have seen nearly all of its good days past as far as how many people heard it, by no means is the first Midnite album from Rastar Records best regarded as the answer to some trivia question. "Better World Rasta" was a crucial release. How crucial exactly? Let's talk about that.
Have I mentioned just how good the music was on this album? Not only do you get a top notch level of quality here, but the music here also is very diverse, particularly for a Midnite album. I'd even go as far as to say that the full musical 'experience' of this album is even better than albums which I hold in a greater esteem than it. It's just a fantastic presentation and, as always, you know Vaughn Benjamin adds to a track what no one else in music can today (or at anytime prior to today). The first example of this comes on the first tune on "Better World Rasta" (DUH!), the very large 'His Speeches'. The tune is supported by a version of the track which served the same function for Uhuru's 'Dread In The Mountain' and Benjamin, respectfully makes it his own with a tune urging all to live up to the standards set by His Majesty in an EXTREMELY clever way. The song has an unusual delivery (even for a Vaughn Benjamin piece) as it kind of moves in spurts, but when you link them all together, when you even try, what you get is one wonderful tune and one of the album's finest to get us started. A tune which I recall having to work with a great deal, 'Ithiopya', is up next. The first few times I heard this tune I didn't really take much from it (absolutely LOVED the sound, however), but as I continued to strip it away and streamline it, what lay beneath was golden. While it probably won't get you up and moving, the sonic appeal of this track is oddly high - it is gorgeous! And Benjamin gives it a rinse behind a tune which, again, is one of the album's best and if you also find it a bit confounding initially, trust me, continuing along is well worth what awaits. 'Honor', on the other hand, though another tune with a curious amount of untainted audio-appeal [BOOM!], required no such time delayed appreciation. It was magic from the very first time I heard it.
"Big tension fi haze ghetto people, dun know dat forever -
Just pon economics and just pon survival
And no matter what kinda brackets one or two ah go over
Something ahgo haffi bring, even if a little scatter
Sight him ah come up the hill pon, backpack another over shoulder
That's a Rastaman, with people to care for
Bound to the principles of Jah Rastafari Ilah"
This song is DAMAGING! It is a mighty piece of social commentary and one not only the signature moments from this album, but the entire Midnite/Rastar Records union (and that riddim is KNOCKING!).
Including 'Honor' there're five or six songs on "Better World Rasta" which really, in my opinion, set themselves apart from the pack and just make this album a real, real winner looking back now. Interestingly enough, 'Honour' actually begins a stretch of four tunes which I feel fit into this class. The second of them was the stirring 'Gi Dem', which actually featured Rastar's self-titled Rastar Riddim ["I KNOW! ONE DAY" WE SHALL SEE!"] (Biggup NiyoRah) and has just progressed immensely over the past few years in my tastes as it shows itself as a lyrically DOMINANT song and the riddim, perhaps one of the more underrated in recent times, or at least from the turn of the century, pushes it even higher.
"For the cause is just and the vibes is right
Just fi get you to McDonalds, police turn on dem light
When the vibes of the people is liberation time
Who caan stand before HIM in the Heavenly House - ah stand beside
Tell di ranking dutty heart dem betta catch HIM in time
Tell di principal inna di root, hold on fi lifetime
Tell di astrologer, tell dem stargazer predict di time
Tell dem stop di mass diseases before the earth ah chastise"
The all kinds of genius 'Train Filled His Temple' comes through on a most simple, but LUSH backing and is a MAMMOTH tune about the reverence of His Majesty. I always enjoy how Benjamin writes songs like this which, primarily, exist to give praise. What he does is to give such a huge amount of importance to a single action or an even ["I SAW!"] that it reverberates for a lifetime and beyond. Doing so gives your listener the direct idea of just how important this one action or event changed him or, more likely, changed the entire world as this Man is all standards. A wonderful song. On the end of this streak of four consecutively brilliant offerings on "Better World Rasta" is the captivating 'Speak Up'. This song is probably one of the more straight-forward on the album. There is very little in the way of twists when it comes to this song, but that's probably where at least a portion of its strength is based. The song is just knowledge grounded in knowledge, laying beneath KNOWLEDGE. A later selection also had a very big impact on me and I don't know if it did for many others, 'Evening Come' ["When evening come, dawning come"]. This is another track which took quite a bit of deciphering and thinking from me to really get into (I keep telling you people I'm not that smart) (and I'm not!). Where I ultimately arrived with it and took from it was that it is a song about the daily cycle of all things which goes uninterrupted no matter who tries whatever they try because it is the will of His Majesty. You also can take this one in the direction of "evening" being significant of 'the end' and the preparation to go onto a better place. It's a very fascinating effort and I always LOVE songs (more on that in a minute) (not really) (but kind of) which challenge the audience to do something besides sit there and enjoy the music. And "BWR" meets its own 'evening' while simultaneously meeting its single best moment: 'Negus I Rastafari' is MASSIVE in every way!
"Yeah Selassie I The First, I
He is mortal, and immortal Rastafari
Fulfillment of deliverance, Jah deliver I
Oh Negus I Jah, bless the I
Yeah, praise HIM high, Jah Rastafari
Ancient of Days, Jah end up in anomony
Fulfillment of prophecy, The Almighty
No matter what rumour they study, you haffi reach wah Degree
Satan reach up inna di pinnacle and still caan free
And a wi use di policy maker dem fi erect dem policy
And select fool fi punish, WHEN DEM ALL GUILTY!"
With one piece of heavy drum highlighting the track behind it, Vaughn Benjamin, again, gives an unmatched amount of thanks and praises to The Almighty and, at least on this album and on most others you'll find from anyone, it never sounded THIS good. Not to be missed and one of the best songs on any Midnite album from Rastar. And upon further thought, 'Ah Jah' well belongs in this group. It is a special piece which has gone on to be one of the more well-regarded pieces on this album as well and for good reason.
The remaining three selections on the "Better World Rasta" album were also pretty good still, for the most part. One of them, the title track, has probably gone on to be the most well known song here (no shock there). That song comes across another classic track and is a very nice and poignantly written piece ["Jah is with I, awake and asleep. Only when I fall short, I lose my place at his feet"]. There's also 'Love Song' which isn't really a 'love song' in the more traditional usage of the phrase, but the conventional isn't really Benjamin's specialty. And finally, speaking of unconventional approaches, 'Over Yonder', which features the… incomparable Jah Rubal. Rubal is truly one of a kind and while he isn't at all one of the more active of names you'll ever come across, at his best listening to him can be an amazing experience in a spoken word style. 'Over Yonder', in my opinion, was one of his stronger outings.
Overall, now taking this type of a look at the album - "Better World Rasta" is an even stronger album than I gave it credit for being (if you really want to be able to appreciate an album, BREAK IT DOWN from front to back, it is a fine experience and it opens up so much and so many different lines of thought that just listening typically does not). It is probably the finest Midnite collaboration with Rastar Records to date and although, as I said, they're albums aren't necessarily the most popular, generally, they have offered some really impressive moments so saying that THIS one is at the top of that group is a really big deal. Also, despite checking in at just twelve tunes and having a running time well short of an hour, "BWR" is a very FULL release and I've run into albums with a lot more music on them which haven't produced a similar experience for me. Presuming they continue to make more albums together (anytime with that dub album, Rastar), the link between Midnite and Rastar Records becomes one which is more and more crucial and to say that about something already so overwhelmingly popular as Midnite is a big deal. Hopefully, someday that may draw quite a few more ears in the direction of where it all began because where it did begin, "Better World Rasta", was exceptional.
CD + Digital