Thursday, December 26, 2013

'What She Does': A review of "Guilty" by Tanya Stephens

Always in demand. There is just a handful of certain individuals in Reggae music who, for one reason or another, have put themselves in a category for me, personally, which makes them absolutely impossible to ignore. Not all of these reasons are exactly positives -- I'm slowly giving up hope, but you'll likely never catch me going too far in not paying attention to the work of Turbulence, wishing and waiting for a return to form -- and some of them are full on strange, but even aside from the lot of names which I would declare as my favourites (although), there are just some people who manage to consistently make their work standout for me. The best example here is definitely Jah Cure. Though I previously was a much bigger fan of the singer's than I am now, I still look forward to his work and am sure to check what's coming from him if I haven't heard anything in quite awhile, which is rarely an issue in the active case of Jah Cure. Of course, in his particular instance the attraction comes within the fact that he simply has the single greatest voice in the history of voices and listening to the man sing anything, anything at all, can be wondrous and he is very skilled, so hearing him at or near his best is just special. I also look at someone such as Perfect Giddimani. Take out the condition he exists in these days, being on a career-best and, perhaps, career-defining stretch of making amazing music, Perfect's unabashed unpredictability makes him a must on my players because you do not know what he will do next and whether or not it will work as well. The same could also be said for Busy Signal who, along with perfect, very much display the element of 'musical theatre' in their work and, obviously, know that music can (and probably should) be both educational and entertaining, regardless of their genre. Though our subject today isn't necessarily someone who tends to come in with an unpredictable style (style - no. CIRCUMSTANCES - yes!), it is the exact opposite trait which makes her music so damn unforgettable and even if she is inactive, keeps her name floating somewhere in my mind. She is as dependable as it gets for the crafting of her significant skill. When it comes to lyrics in Dancehall music, Tanya Stephens has very little peers. She is one of the greatest of all time and for that reason, whatever she does and whenever she does it (and for whomever) - it deserves not only attention, but some level of respect as well. 
"Gangsta Blues" [2004] & "Rebelution" [2006]
More specifically, besides coming up with very unique perspectives from which to write and present, Stephens' greatest asset when it comes to her lyrics is an abundance of good common sense, a very subtle but infectiously addictive sense of humour and a stirring blend of obvious confidence with a 'focused vulnerability'. And when you think of great writers, from any genre of music, I think that one of the biggest compliments you can pay to them is to say that every song that they do is ABOUT SOMETHING. It may not be something which is easily comprehended or even easily applied (biggup Vaughn Benjamin), but when they make a tune, they have an idea in mind for it and it almost always comes together and appears like that. 
"Infallible" [2010]
Speaking of coming together, when it comes to albums, things get even more interesting for the veteran. I won't go back too far (although maybe I should someday, as she would be a good subject for a future Discography post, because I think she's the type of artist who has more albums than people usually realize), but what Stephens did between a couple of years and a couple of albums was to, 'merely', push two of the best albums that I've ever heard. In 2004 Stephens would reach new heights with the MAMMOTH "Gangsta Blues" album which was very popular -- most notably containing 'It's A Pity' ('We A Lead' was also on that album) ["Yow, pass di paper. Gimme di pen. And mek mi slap some lyrics inna some fool face again. Run di riddim. Andrew gimme a track. And mi spit this, mi waan si dem find a comeback"] [WHAT!] [BOOM!] -- and really pushed her to another level of stardom as a musician. And just two years later she would hit back with yet another master class of a record with "Rebelution". That album was also very popular, carrying a song such as 'These Streets' (and 'Who Is Tanya') ["Dem waan fi know who is Tanya. Mi nah haffi strip fi control dem man yah. Mi have di game inna palm a mi hand yah. A WORLD DOMINATION AH DI PLAN YAH!"] [Grrrr!] and many other excellent sets which would build on the work that "Gangsta Blues" would help to get started. There was really a point where a very strong case could have been made that Stephens was amongst the most popular stars of the genre for a time and while things have changed from then, those two albums and the work which constructed them are impossible to forget. However, as we come up on the ridiculous ten year anniversary of "Gangsta Blues" (no way it seems that long ago), Tanya Stephens has been through changes in her career. Both of the aforementioned albums were released via VP Records, with whom she had also worked previously and, seemingly, had a good relationship, but it stopped there (save for a greatest hits release in 2009). Her next album, "Infallible", didn't even have a distributor and, instead and shockingly, was given away by Tanya Stephens to fans online, completely free of cost. If I recall correctly (and I never, ever do), her reason was that she personally had benefited so little from obviously popular work that she felt like anytime she did an album for a label that she was giving it away for free anyway. In retrospect, that was remarkable, and it ranks as one of the most such moments in recent Reggae history. The album, however, was not as remarkable and did not live up to the exceedingly high standards set by its two elder siblings. But she goes on, still a pretty big name and, again, still the possessor of one of the sharpest wits and sharpest pens in the genre. So what next? Why not do a new album and why not call it "Guilty"?

Though Tanya Stephens, apparently, has no problem taking on the charges, herself, her long time 'accomplice', Andrew Henton who helmed both "Gangsta Blues" and "Rebelution" did not stand trial here and instead, Stephens is represented by one Michael McFade, Sanctum Entertainment and herself. I didn't have much in the way of expectations for the quality of this album which was rumoured as early as late last year, but though it has taken its time, it's hear now and it is yet another occasion to hear one of the greatest ply her trade like no one else can. The first example you get to hear of this on hew new album, "Guilty" is on the album's eponymous effort which is also, essentially, an intro. This piece, among other things, sets the lyrical stage for what is to come on the nearly hour long record behind it. She goes after many topics, including just a general lack of respect that she feels she's gotten (and she's correct) and how she tends to fit into different categories because she is a female. Again, she's correct, so I'd like to reiterate my appreciation: SHE IS ONE OF THE GREATEST LYRICISTS OF ALL TIME - REGARDLESS OF GENRE. I also want to mention that part of the attraction to "Gangsta Blues" and "Rebelution" was in how they were presented and the opener here definitely gives this one a similar type of early feeling. Apparently it isn't much of a pity on 'Pon Di Side' which is next on the album as Stephens proclaims she has no problem with being or keeping a person on the side of her relationship. The tune appears to ride some version of the Red Wine Riddim (which you know for having backed Mad Cobra's 'Gangsta Flex' track from a few years back, though I don't recall that thing sounding this good). Stephens has a knack for making really cool kind of love/sex tunes and though this one is a bit too 'loud' to be one of those, it is still very good and she'll give you a fine example of what I'm talking about in just awhile. 'Hit & Run', the album's longest song on the album at north of four and a half minutes, is a selection which isn't one of my favourite here but it isn't horrible. It's kind of a Poppy piece dealing with relationships which, again, has a very unique sound to it and just didn't reach me well, but I'll continue to work on it. And I saw the title 'Too Real Fi You' and got the mental image of a sweet type of old school Dancehall song, but while that didn't materialize and what did was somewhat of an R&B tune, I wasn't wholly disappointed with. Give this one a few spins before passing a final judgment. And the first portion of the album receives a very much needed bit of a step up in tempo in the tune, 'You Can't Be A Baller'. It takes a minute to get there, but that riddim develops into a big piece of candy for your ears and as for Tanya Stephens, she's just getting warmed up. 

By the time the all kinds of interesting 'Bible or Gun' comes through, she's reached a full boil, however. Though I still wouldn't call that tune her best (obviously), I enjoyed it a lot because it substantially deals with a real life situation that so many people face daily in terms of trying to make it in life and choosing to do things legitimately or through more nefarious means and it doesn't paint an overly-rosy picture of things. The song which chases on it "Guilty", previous single 'Broken People', makes for a very compelling pair of tunes. This one kind of links everyone in the world from the previous one in terms of saying that everyone, from every walk of life, has to do what we have to do. 

"The world is full of Black people and White people -
In the middle trying to make it right people
Everybody just getting by 
Broken wings, trying to learn to fly
Straight people and gay people -
In the middle trying to find a way people
Everybody just getting by

We hurt
Broken people hurt
We feel
Broken people feel
We feel, but we heal
And we fight, but tonight, we're gonna be alright"

As a person who has been broken and repaired and re-broken and re-repaired several dozen times over I appreciate a song like this which, essentially, says that everyone is kind of fucked up in some way but we do the best that we can still! It is one of my favourites on "Guilty" and hopefully I'm not the only one who thinks that. Check the delightful '140lbs of Love' with its great old riddim and the captivating 'More Music'. This song is so interesting for several reasons, not the least of which is its growing intensity. As it continues its way through we find Stephens basically telling her peers to step up their work and to make better songs, but midway through this thing you kind of begin to realize just how pissed off she is by the situation. Definitely be sure to take a heavy listen to that one. Oh and, unless you really feel like crying, you might want to avoid 'One Time' - a song which will force you to make an emotional commitment to it, even if you are not wanting to.


If 'One Time' didn't finish you off (but if it did, you have not lost my respect), the latter stages of "Guilty" injects a (… just to stress the point, 'One Time' is not a bad song, it's very good actually, but it is a depressing one) few smiles into things including on one of the album's best, 'Crazy'. This offering deals with one following one's heart instead of your head or what other people may say about things in your relationship because what makes sense and is perfect to someone does not and is not to everyone. I like how she kind of turns things around to say that the relationship isn't insane, but to NOT pursue it IS. On the only official combination on "Guilty", 'Corners of My Mind', Tanya Stephens taps new veteran (biggup Lloyd Brown) (an album on which Tanya Stephens guested) Sanjay which is nearly excellent and a strong addition to this album. I can't say that I've paid a great deal of attention to Sanjay's work throughout the years, but apparently I need to correct that going into 2014. That tune follows one which I don't like in the Country-fied 'Never Let You Go'. Despite its sound, which isn't bad, I think the song could have used a bit of an edge, but definitely listen to it for yourself and make up your own mind. As things wind down, the edge which is present on 'Never Let You Go', is prevalent on the album's final trio of tunes. First up is the adorable 'Get Up & Dance'. Like I said, its subtle, but when you listen to enough of Stephens' music, her sense of humour comes out in several ways and this is a tune which both made me smile and laugh at times. But with all of that being said, the tune which reigns supreme on "Guilty" for me, unsurprisingly, is 'Unapologetic'. This is the direct descendant of compositions such as 'Boom Wuk' as just a really frosty sexy type of song (I know that the two don't typically match, but they do and do so very well in this instance) which she just does so well. This isn't quite THAT good ('Boom Wuk' was… it was golden), but it is in that same direction and I love to hear Stephens with the cool confidence set high ["Mek a bitch gwan bitch - a her job that"] and it is blowing all through 'Unapologetic' as a woman who knows what she wants and is unashamed to go after it. Lastly, check 'The Beat Goes On' which is a lyrical tirade from Stephens aimed, again, at those who refuse to giver her what she is due. Perhaps the entire album, in a sense, had similar intentions and though I've never known Stephens to be a very criticized person, surely she deserves more than what she's gotten as being such a remarkable gifted artist. 
Tanya Stephens
Overall, while "Guilty" is not as good as either "Gangsta Blues" or "Rebelution" (and you didn't expect it to be), it is considerably better than "Infallible" in my opinion and a more than fitting album from Tanya Stephens at this point in her career. As to her lasting point on this album in terms of giving her the credit she has earned in an amazing career, I think it may take some time, even beyond the timeframe in which she makes her music for her to receive that. Years from now someone will come along, male or female, and will be a top star and list amongst their greatest influences Tanya Stephens and maybe that will help to lead people back to her unique ways. She may not be the exciting person to listen to. Her command of melody may not be the greatest and she may not be as active as you'd want her to be (she isn't), but when it comes to actually writing lyrics and crafting together songs, Tanya Stephens is in very thin company. There isn't anyone who does what she does and even on an album like "Guilty", it remains brutally apparent. Not her best, but a very solid album. 

Rated: 3.85/5
Sanctum Entertainment
CD [January 2014] + Digital 

Review #485

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