Sunday, May 11, 2014

'Just Like Old Times': A review of "Born A King" by Sizzla Kalonji

Throwback. It is unfortunate but, after reading dozens of articles over the years regarding the level of distress existing concerning the commercial success of Reggae music and, specifically, Reggae albums, I'm almost certain that the not-too-distant occurrence of a handful of artists releasing upwards of three and four albums in a year is "distant" because it's no longer very good for business. And even at the time, it just seemed kind of odd as the potentially powerful phrase, "new album from ________", was virtually wasted because it was so consistently 'refreshed' in regards to some after a couple of months or so (but wasn't it fun?!!). In retrospect, I think more resounding was the number of labels, rather than the number of albums. Surely they had to have known what existed in the way of competition (or at least some of them had to have known) (I'm sure Penitentiary had no idea) and it never seemed to matter. Less than a decade later and many of those labels are either completely gone or now have spotty, drizzly release schedules at best (even on the higher and wholly legitimate side, such as Greensleeves Records). Yet, there have been exceptions in recent times where we've seen particular artists just explode with albums and turn back the clock to a not really forgotten era. The exception to this, of course, is Vaughn Benjamin whose constancy rises to the point where it is now the second week of the fifth month of the year and I'm wondering why he only has one album (and maybe a Dub album???). But if you take a look at what Norris Man has done recently in releasing five albums over just a couple of years, it definitely reminds you of a few years back. And Norris Man wasn't amongst the lot of extremely prolific names such as Jah Mason, Turbulence (both of whom are relative rarities on album shelves these days), Luciano and others who would do three and four albums a year. Another entrant in that group and the superstar of prolificacy was Sizzla Kalonji who, just last year, released an album billed as number seventy, significantly ahead of his fortieth birthday. That is a fact which is just very strange and probably one which is unparalleled in almost every genre of music and, as math would dictate, many of those sets were released in years with two or three other albums. But those days are long gone now… aren't they??? 
"Radical" [5 minutes ago]
I don't know what my reaction would have been if you were to have told me, in December, that 2014 would not reach its midway point without Sizzla releasing three albums, but the idea, alone, is somewhat nostalgic and I would have loved it even if they didn't turn out to be the most amazing three albums that I'd ever heard. And now, in the first half of May, Sizzla has now delivered a trio of albums. The first two, "Nuh Worry Unu Self" and "Radical" were very different albums to my ears. What the first, in retrospect, may've lacked in the spectacular, it made up for through being a relatively solid set. While "Radical", on the other hand, with its all kinds of interesting background story, featured a mixture of moments which just weren't very good at all, with others which were fully exceptional. Both of those albums and a steady stream of singles have already made for a really interesting year 2014 for Sizzla, but it's only May and maybe he's just getting started.  
"Nuh Worry Unu Self" [10 minutes ago]
And if he is, he's doing it big as yet another album has arrived in the form of "Born A King". This set has been being 'built' in a unique and fascinating manner - one which I cannot recall being used previously. "Born A King" comes courtesy of the well regarded Mista Savona and Muti Music from out of Australia and they have done one impressive piece of work in leading up to the album's release date. In presenting singles the label, essentially, released EP's for several of the songs on the album with the original version being accompanied by mixes and remixes and instrumentals and, again, perhaps doing something that I've never seen before. Through more than seventy albums that's definitely saying a lot as people are still appreciating the moment when it comes to Sizzla's music and, likely, doing more work in making one of his albums in a very long time. Of course, when you do such a thing, it absolutely portends that an even larger project is forthcoming and, seemingly because of that, "Born A King" has seemed to pick up a steam ahead of its release date, even with being pushed alongside both of its most immediate predecessors (with considerable respect to "Radical", which has been promoted very well as a VP Records album and less so to "Nuh Worry Unu Self", which I don't think that I've read a even a piece of official promotional material on to date). I'm very curious to not only see if Muti Music might someday repeat this unusual approach (if they haven't actually already used it for another record in the past) and if someone else may take the cue and do it themselves. It shows a whole heap of confidence in the work as well as a great attention to detail, in my opinion. And those singles not only helped to build anticipation towards this album, but also expectations and though I did not go into it expecting to hear the greatest Sizzla album of all time (or "the best Sizzla album since "Da Real Thing"), but I was surely expecting to hear a strong and well presented album and "Born A King" is that. Let's take a closer look! 

Given the varied nature of some of its early singles, I was very curious as to what the pacing of this album would be. I didn't know if it would be heavily Dancehall and Hip-Hop or more Roots music. It would turn out to be a little bit of both (far more Hip-Hop than Dancehall) and, ultimately, a satisfying set. Getting the good things going on Sizzla Kalonji's other new album, "Born A King" from Muti Music is its title track which is also one of its biggest tunes (thankfully. It's always odd when the title tune isn't very good). The riddim on this piece is something to be heard and it is utilized in a major way by the artist. Lyrically, it was something I was not expecting as the composition, essentially, is a social commentary with the focus not being firmly planted on the spiritual side, which is what I assumed it would be. But with that, 'Born A King', also has a very 'free' type of vibes to it and it slowly builds on the listener to an excellent level. Chasing the opener is another selection in 'Champion Sound' which also doesn't go in the direction in which its title seems to be trying to steer the listener. The song is the first of four combinations, this one featuring the esteemed Errol Dunkley. Instead of riding with the champion sound, musically speaking, the tune is more about finding successes in life and though it may not be the most coordinated song Sizzla has ever done (particularly not on the second verse), 'Champion Sound' (as they're supposed to do) just kind of won my affections after awhile. Dunkley's contributions are minimal, but fittingly nice, and also check what is done with the riddim here following the vocals (the same thing is done on 'Born A King', but it is much better here). Interestingly enough, Errol Dunkley's isn't the only name teaming up with Sizzla for 'Champion Sound'. Later on is a much more explosive mix of the track featuring former label mate, Turbulence. That version of the song has much more of a BITE and is the better of the two in my opinion, but both are not to be missed. 'Blessed' is the first of the previously mentioned expanded released singles and it was also the most recent.

"A ghetto youth like me-
Haffi have a pretty ghetto girl like she
Haffi build a roof and protect the family
Haffi push di door cause a mi got di key
Rise out of di dirt and di whole a dem surprised
Big house, nuff land, nuff enterprise
Ghetto youth - make better dem life
Blessings swarm dem like di beehive"

"We lock di place and wi nah run weh
Music ah play no bodda bring no gun deh
Any weh mi deh, poor people come deh
Every ghetto youth haffi reach some weh
Original and you know mi nah switch
Tell every ghetto youth, singer get rich
Don't bodda drop yuh bredda down inna di ditch
Hey, listen di words from mi rich"

"Poor people ah suffer so long, mi observe it
Morning to night, dem ah offer dem service
Doing for the children, make sure preserve it
Poor people more than willing and worth it
Give dem everything and give dem more than that!
Give dem everything and give dem more pon that!
Poor people foundation and mi sure bout that -
From the floor to the top"
The tune, another very explosive one, is a standout here and I did not like this song, previously, as much as I do now when going through it for the sake of review. It is a song which, obviously, carries a crucial message, but one which is also very fun to listen to.  
Though the genre of Hip-Hop music surely has billions of greater fans than I, there are some moments on this album which register as Hip-Hop to my ears which I did not find myself immediately dismissing. The most glaring of these tracks would certainly be another of the pre-album singles, 'The Formula', which features Sizzla alongside Australian rapper, Vida Sunshyne (a GREAT name) who, as her name suggests, shines. I don't know how likely it is that my typical listening rotation would put her back in my 'sights' (probably not very), but she does very well with this song which was probably even meant as a showcase for her talents. Another tune, 'Set It Off', is basically a love song and it's decent, but I really enjoyed the simple track carrying the tune, which is also given the time to show itself after the song's vocals have completed and, there, Savona and company begin to add a few different sounds (including what sounds like a flute), making for a fine display of music. Also check the downright dazzling 'Big Man Ting'.

"Big man thing
Sizzla no join di idiot thing
Fi kill di ghetto youths - a no mi that king 
Big man thing
Sizzla no join di idiot thing
Go tell dem praise Selassie I The King"

In its own way, the tune is one about living up and having a particular standard which you observe in your life and it is placed in a very infectious packaging - one of the most attractive on the album. 'Cold War' also left an impression on me as well and though I wouldn't count it amongst the very best on "Born A King", I wouldn't be surprised at all if quite a few people did (including me after awhile because I tend to have a better opinion of this song every time I hear it). And though I am not in love with it, I have to give credit to 'Why Does The World Cry', which is a nice song to listen to and features full flashes of brilliance. It is somewhat uneven in spots but, again, you'll have a good time hearing this one. On the other side of that would be 'Got What It Takes', which I did not like very much. Not a failure at all and from a lyrical standpoint it may be a success, but the tune is awkward to my opinion -- you don't sing a long to this type of song -- and on an album which is so diverse as "Born A King", it is a sound which well stands out. And I should also mention that 'Got What It Takes' has an acoustic remix which is nearly significant better than the original in my opinion.  
Still, unsurprisingly, it is when "Born A King" finds its Roots where it shines brightest for me. The single 'I'm Living' is a strong example and it is pushed well here. Accompanied by a downright delicious interlude which appears to be a behind the scenes cut of the making of the song and, subsequently a GOLDEN acoustic version, 'I'm Living' was clearly very well regarded by its makers and with good reason. I don't think it has an equal on this album. 

"I'm living for the sick and the poor
The hungry and the shelterless sleeping on the floor
I'm giving all I've got and more
I know Jah bless me and open up the doors
I'm living for the young and the old
The blind and the deaf and the dumb as you know
I'm giving Jah Jah love to all those -
Beautiful people of the world

Government coming with the same damn thing
Million and trillionaires ain't doing one thing
Children listen when the Rastaman sing
No matter the destruction, gwan praise The King
Warn dem and tell dem that it's right over wrong
Mr. president why is you make the bombs?
Everyday is weapon of mass destruction
See they ain't go no love for anyone"

Along with the big words on the tune, it is backed with a sweet riddim (which appears to include a heavy melodica) which Savona also showcases in the tune's final stages. That thing glows! It is, easily, amongst the greatest compositions on this album and speaks so highly to the work of Muti Music. BOOM! And finally, check another big selection and the final combination on "Born A King", 'Give Jah Praise'. This piece features vocals from the late and great Alton Ellis (I believe the song combines a previous tune from Ellis with Sizzla's vocals). What we have here is a sublime praising tune and though Sizzla's vocals dominate much of the song, Ellis' work cannot go overlooked because both turn in stellar efforts on this big tune. Again, a mammoth credit goes to Mista Savona and Muti Music for giving us something like this which will not be soon forgotten.

Overall, despite the varied nature of this album, I do really like it and, perhaps, it made it an even more joyous experience. In his now seventy-three album catalogue, Sizzla Kalonji has more than a few fully WEIRD albums, but I don't think this one qualifies as such a set. "Born A King" is fairly strong throughout and I'm thinking that if you like Hip-Hop music, you're likely to enjoy it even more than I did and maybe quite a bit more. The lasting impression is here is that someone, Mista Savona and Muti Music, really put a lot of work into this album and that shows, even at times when I wasn't amazed by what I heard - effort shows. So, while it is the case that when you release bunches and bunches of albums, some are virtually guaranteed to be lost and 'overcome' by the popularity of others, I hope and think that won't be the case for "Born A King". For all of its textures and colours, it is a pretty picture to look at and it may just be the best album from Sizzla Kalonji in a loaded 2014. 

Rated: 4/5
Muti Music
CD [Maybe] + Digital

Review #507

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