Thursday, April 17, 2014

'Fossil Fueled': A review of "Radical" by Sizzla Kalonji

Mixology. There exist so many wonderful benefits in being prolific and consistently active in doing something. Aside from the clearest advantage -- the more you do something, presumably, the better you get at it -- it also presents a wide array of other, very healthy, qualities. As far as music (because that's what we do here), one obvious gain made by an artist remaining active is that it keeps their name in the attention of fans. In Reggae music (something else we do here), although I do feel that the overwhelming need for immediacy has somewhat dwindled in recent years, that is very important as so many spend their entire careers looking for that 'first' or 'next' big hit. If you throw out a whole heap of songs it is far more likely that one will 'stick' with the masses as opposed to two or three, here and there. Also, and this may just be me, for certain individuals, even if they aren't favourites of mine, I'm more inclined to not care if they push a streak of tunes (or even a full album or two) which I don't particularly enjoy because I know that the next isn't a very long wait away. So I think that being so active definitely does kind of develop and promote a lower demand and less of a pressurized condition for output from fans. And those would be good points. Ultra-prolificacy also has its drawbacks, however. One of them is that you risk competing against yourself as you increase your chances of downright diluting the term 'NEW' (when 'new tune' or 'new album' has… several different meanings). I always find it interesting how if you read any relatively substantive interview with Vaughn Benjamin (and biggup Angus Taylor who conducted the last one I read), the hilariously active chanter is sure to point out that despite the fact that he's talking about a particular release, he has several more loaded and ready to go - ALWAYS. With circumstances like that, you virtually ensure that albums and albums worth of tunes fall between the proverbial cracks and decades from now some label (probably named Rastar) will begin issuing previously unheard Midnite songs packed and packaged as albums. And that's a drawback… right? Well, yeah it's a drawback because you and I likely won't be around to hear them.

But we're here today (if you are currently reading this - congratulations, you are not dead) and it's looking very interesting. I'm sure that at the height of his truly stunning prolificacy the thought occurred to me that there had to be some giant cache of indefinitely shelved tunes from the great Sizzla Kalonji. Releasing dozens and dozens of tunes and upwards of three or four albums annually, there just had be some which didn't get released. Many (most) of those albums were coming from different single producers (as opposed to be just being singles pulled together from a variety of different maestros) and you knew that every song considered did not make the album and weren't released or at least not in any lasting capacity. In Sizzla's case it is magnified, at least for me, because this man has made THE best music I have ever heard in my life and when you consider all of the great albums and great streaks that he has given us throughout the years, there were some songs which, for whatever reason, may not have been pushed properly in the face of PILLARING singles or may not have made it onto SPECTACULAR albums - were probably still very, VERY good… at least.  
"Crucial Times" [2010]
And he's shown us glimpses of this throughout the years. Most recently there was the album "Crucial Times" from 2010 which came courtesy of Homer Harris who discovered Sizzla Kalonji and featured material from a nascent and pre-even early prime level of the chanter. And I am also reminded of the "Da Real Live Thing" album which featured not only a fantastic video piece but also three tunes, two of which were originals, 'Bright Sunshine' and 'Be Still' ["THOU SHALL NOT KILL, BE STILL! GO HOLD A SABBATH ON THE HILL!"] [WHAT!] [BOOM!], which were not carried on the original "Da Real Thing" album. He's also had similar things done with different versions of albums released throughout the years as well. However, with all of that being said, one would think that if anyone were to be experiencing anything resembling a surplus of tunes from Sizzla Kalonji, it would definitely be his longtime home and the label which most helped to bring him to prominence, Xterminator. Alongside the legendary Philip 'Fatis' Burrell and Xterminator Productions, Sizzla Kalonji recorded approximately four-thousand albums and nearly twenty-two million singles - many of which, in both cases, remain some of his strongest and most recognizable work to date. And certainly we haven't heard all that there was to hear from the sessions which would produce such masterful material and now we get to hear at least some of what we missed as Sizzla Kalonji gets "Radical". The son of the late Burrell, Kareem Burrell, who took over the label as XTM Nation ("Living Heart Vol. 1", in stores now), also acts as a producer of this album and fills its very healthy ranks [sixteen tracks - not two minutes south of an hour in total playing time] with some of the music that he has continued to record with Kalonji. The album is also distributed by VP Records who, to no surprise, has re-become interested in the work of Kalonji following last year's "The Messiah", which they also worked with and was ultimately nominated for a Grammy Award. That album was one of the most talked about that Sizzla has had in a really long time and while the early discussion around this one hasn't been nearly as high (and predictably and fittingly so), "Radical" and its damn interesting set of circumstances, at least for me, presented a potential for a very good set. "Vintage Sizzla Kalonji" is a phrase which is used entirely too much by people like me, but its over usage in terms of reference hasn't diluted its meaning: At his best, or even near it, his is a peerless talent. I've never heard anyone who can do what he does and over the years despite many twists, turns and controversies in his career, it is a fact which has remained glaring and, inherently, the background of "Radical" promised "Vintage Sizzla". So obviously this should be a great album…
completely random flyer
So maybe "great album" is a bit too much for this one (it is). Instead, what it is ultimately, is a decent set with GREAT flashes which essentially make up for its shortcomings - as distinct as they may be (they are). Listening to this set has definitely been interesting because we've had it for awhile now (biggup Bredz) and the one thing that has been constant, as far as my appreciation for it, has been change (biggup Danny I). When I first heard it, I definitely did think it great or some form of it (and was about to write a review for it immediately and it was fortunate that I did not (Biggup Bredz again), because I would have given this album like a 4.75/5 or something like that and would have had to Rewind it back a few minutes later), then it became somewhat awkward, so I kind of tried to wait to find a more steady opinion and the final one (at least the one I'm going with now) is that it is a relatively decent project with extreme highs and significant lows. That being said, "Radical" definitely does get off to a rather awkward start with 'Protect My Life'. The sonics on this one (presumably intentionally) are odd. It is a very LOUD tune. And that is its dominant feature to my ears an audio effect which… may or may not actually exist. The song is routine, with a decent chorus and lyrics, but the presentation is very odd. Fortunately, that stops there as one of the biggest chunks of gold on the album rolls in next in the form of the title track. 'Radical', the song, may have actually come from the same sessions that produced the legendary "Praise Ye Jah" album and it shares a base (or at least a piece of it) with 'Greedy Joe', which appeared on that album. It is a mighty social commentary with Sizzla saying that more 'standard' methods of fighting wickedness and negativity may not be working anymore and more drastic tactics are required.

"You guys can be found in the highest corners -
You fellas who call unuself leaders
Selling out my people to gain a few dollars
Debase yah own race and then ah brag"

"You say how good Mr. So and So is
No gimme dat -
I watch how you are around my people -
You and your friends, oh yes
With the institution you represent"

Next is the very familiar 'What's Wrong With The Picture?' which is a song from not very long ago, courtesy of XTM Nation. I had not heard this tune in a few minutes and it sounds damn good on this album. It's one of the best songs on this release, easily, and to my opinion, one of the finest Kalonji has ever done with the younger Burrell - and biggup the musicians there, particularly Dean Fraser who shines. And the first quarter of "Radical" both ends and pinnacles with the single biggest selection on this album, the MASSIVE and unforgiving 'Sad Mistake'. The title here isn't so common so when I saw it, I thought it was the same piece from Free Willy and happily it was not (thought that was a good song). This song is [likely] a much older one with a sweet piece of edge to it as Kalonji, often angrily, reacts to being overlooked and taken for granted by unrighteous people, setting a nasty example. So many things to like with this one but probably the biggest is its free and organic nature. I don't know how much of this tune he actually wrote and how much of it just kind of evolved, but it definitely has the feeling of something spontaneous and full on brilliant! BOOM!

The not too distant 'Burn Dem Schism' is probably the most recognizable tune from the next batch of tunes on 'Radical' and, for me, it is a very strange song. It isn't a good song, but I kind of like it. 'Burn Dem Schism' is the musical equivalent to that person who is not your type at all, but for some reason you find them very attractive! If you absolutely hate this song, that's fine, you probably have more good sense than I do (… if it is the best song you've ever heard in your life, you too probably have more good sense than I do… you just need to seek some type of mental help… IMMEDIATELY!), but there's something about it which catches me. The infectious bounce of 'Hardcore', on the other hand, is far less mesmerizing: I like it because it is a great song. The direction of this tune isn't very different from the album's title track with Sizzla saying that another level of attention and action is called for in the eyes of increasingly heinously behaving opposition and it is presented in this package which will have your head moving and feet tapping, while Sizzla DAZZLES on one of the album's biggest. 'Golden Rule', as strange as it is (and it is), is a song which I do enjoy and partially because of just how free it is. It is done in that wailing singing Kalonji does, but if you line up a dozen of those types of tunes, this one is probably amongst the better of those - but I don't like it as much now as I once did (it's almost like a musical display, more than an actual song). The song which chases it, 'It's A Rocky Road', on the other hand, is burning.

"Give dem di length of di rope because dem haffi go
Mek dem come, dem nah know who dem ah confront
What bad have I done?
You want to throw mi in the dump
Just because I'm licking out against the system you create
Mi know weh mi fi step, Jah Jah done choose di place
What you propose to mi, I know seh a fake
You can't discourage I heart, is it that hard to see?
I'm so strongly beat with God Almighty
You coming on fast to hurt mi

Kalonji explodes on a song where it seems as if a younger version of the artist is coming to a point where he is accepting of the RESPONSIBILITIES which are to come. It has a social connotation as well (obviously), but I really enjoy the aspect here of someone preparing themselves for what is to come and, looking back, it worked. 

The next lot of tunes from "Radical" represent some of the weakest material to be found on this album and it was largely here where I definitely began to reconsider, thankfully. To my opinion, three of the four songs are, at best, below average. 'Everybody Has To Live' (despite its riddim, which is very good), 'That's Why I Love You' and 'All Da Time' are… all pretty bad songs - every one of them. And 'Groove With Me', though FAR, FARRRRRRRRR from special is considerably better than them all and that's about it. The final four songs on the album are substantially better than the four ahead of it, but not really even the arena of the slight majority of the first eight songs on "Radical", with one exception. 'Best Thing In Life' is in a pretty good place on the album as, following a few less than spectacular (to be nice) love songs, the wholly average nearly shines almost completely by comparison. 'I'm A Winner', surely a freestyled type of a song, is very abrasive and just weird ultimately. 'Fly High, Fly Low', is a song which I've heard before and wasn't thrilled by. The chorus is nice and even the subject, which is one about adapting and evolving to be the best in life, but the presentation drags it down a bit and, again, makes an odd song. Thankfully, however, "Radical" does end in a strong way with the gorgeous 'I Am No Better' wrapping things up. 

"I'm no better than you are
So what's the difference?
Jah create us all the same sentence
So why, you look at I with such contempt?
As if I'm someone that you resent
My brother I am Black like you are
So what's the difference?
Jah create us all in the same sentence
So why, you look at I with such contempt
As if I'm someone that you resent

Oh what a feeling I feel inside!
Thinking of all the things we do to survive 
And you see your bredda suffer in front your eyes
And you look him with a scorn and hesitate to oblige
Yes, your own bredda you neglect and put aside -
For what? I don't know but that move wasn't wise
We're due for extinction if we don't realize -
That each one, help one a so wi haffi rise"

The tune is another one from an older era, like most of the best songs on this album, which is top notch and it is, at least for me, the type of tune which is the backbone for an album like this. 
Overall, it is that SPINE which makes this a compelling project and one which is worthy of the time of some fans. It is a matter of THE best of this album being so good (and it is, there're four or five songs here which're truly exceptional) that it doesn't quite erase the bad (it doesn't even come close to doing that), but it definitely tempers it to a degree and fulfills the interest and the way in which this album was presented. Furthermore, it obviously opens things up a bit more in this case. Who knows who else may have enough material to put together an entire new album from Sizzla. It seems likely that there may be another one, or more in the vaults of Xterminator and maybe others as well (and maybe we could get to hear them at some point). In any case, while "Radical" is definitely NOT amongst the best albums to date from Sizzla Kalonji (he's had tens and dozens which were better), when it's good, it is a very interesting set and one which takes us back to the early and still developing stages of one of the greatest of all time.

Rated: 3.40/5
VP Records
CD + Digital

Review #501


  1. I think my opinion on this one would have been closer to yours if they hadn't screwed up the mastering of the older songs. They're all great (and the last one is just superb) but Sizzla sounds like a chipmunk singing some of them. On the whole, for having at least 7-8 good-to-great songs on it, this album bums me out. I'm going to be correcting the pitch on those tracks when I rip the CD so I don't have to listen to them in this massacred form.

    Still waiting on VP to truly scour out the vaults and give us an album of nothing but unreleased vintage Kalonji, properly mastered and sequenced. THAT would be an album I could fall in love with. I feel pretty sure these 5 songs aren't the extent of the treasures still waiting to be heard.

  2. I would think that Xterminator would have at least another album-full of unreleased music, probably more and Bobby Digital as well and they're probably not the only ones. But maybe they aren't the best quality. I didn't have so much of a problem with the audio quality here, but some of the songs definitely did have strange-at-best acoustics.