Thursday, October 30, 2014

'Mama': A review of "I Rise" by Etana

Faces. If you take a snapshot of Reggae music in its current state there are so many possible headlining stories you could come up with which could, furthermore, lead into an endless line of directions. Of course the genre is one never short on controversies -- and it never has been -- -- and it never will be -- but just speaking musically, I maintain that we, right now, could be experiencing what is a golden age. Surely that distinction would be best left for the future but don't be surprised if years from now when You and I are old and grey that we are wishing for music as good then as it is now. Within that I think a major aspect has not only been the onset of the arrival of a talented group of wide ranging vocalists over the last decade or so but, specifically, I think something that has really helped to push the quality of the music has been an extremely powerful and gifted cache of Women in Reggae music. What has come with such an impressive globalization of the music has been daughters who are, many times, even more capable than many of their talented in their own right male counterparts. And while never has Reggae fully displayed a 'boys only' type of 'mentality', I think that what we've seen in the past few years is the full erasure of any actual or perceived gender line when it comes to the highest levels. What happened??? Talent happened and people began to pay attention. We started to notice that when it came to Lover's Rock the true heir apparent to someone like a Beres Hammond was… someone like Alaine. We kept watching and watching and one day, in the midst of a mountain of different issues, you looked up and when it came to true talent Spice had very little in the way of peers in the Dancehall, regardless of gender (I don't talk about Spice a lot but when it comes to Dancehall she's one of only about five people who I constantly listen to these days). And we kept eyes on the 'rises' of names like Ce'Cile and Queen Ifrica and others and, simultaneously, enjoyed the expansion which would bring in toweringly skilled individuals such as Jah9 who TOYS with the power of spoken word, Queen Omega who belongs in a class of her own with what she can do, Reemah who may someday place herself on a level with Dezarie as far Women in Virgin Islands Reggae music and, of course, Sara Lugo [new album, "Hit Me With Music", in stores now] whose most unusual background still managed to lead her to Reggae music with a voice that simply has no equal. And we could go on and on and it is wonderful! When we go to the head, however, one that is true and has been for the better part of the past five years when you talk about Women making Reggae music today, all roads (eventually) lead to 'The Strong One’. 
Etana has been the Mother of a recent conscious push which included the likes of Tarrus Riley, Duane Stephenson [new album, "Dangerously Roots", in stores now], I-Octane and others. And, leading into a next generation bannered by the likes of Chronixx and Kabaka Pyramid, she's well maintained her position and can comfortably be looked upon as one of the most popular Reggae stars in the world today and THE most popular female. And while yes, you can find many, MANY less desirable things to stare at, Etana's popularity has been largely due to her incredible output and her catalogue over the past five years stands in MIGHTY comparison to anyone's over that same period of time. Still, when it comes to making albums, which is a talent of its own in my opinion (just throwing big songs together does not always make for the best collection), NO ONE (NOBODY!) does it as well as Etana. 
"Better Tomorrow" [2013]
She gave us another and a third powerful example of this just last year when the downright special "Better Tomorrow" reached and wowed (although it, reportedly, didn't perform as well as hoped commercially, so that may help to explain the quick return). That album followed a pair of predecessors in "Free Expressions" and "The Strong One" from two and five years prior, respectively, which were similarly impressive and remain so today. She's made wonderful albums and has made the type of anthem-like music which has not only produced a consistent stream of hits but has also really helped a lot of people, myself definitely included. So, with those type of lofty accomplishments already achieved it's easy to imagine that Etana's next album, whatever it may be and whenever it may arrive is definitely going to be heavily anticipated and that is precisely the case going into "I Rise", the brand new and fourth album from the reigning Etana. I was actually quite surprised to see "I Rise" on its way forward. Like I said, "Better Tomorrow" was just last year (albeit in the early part of the year) and Etana's albums, fittingly, are some of the finest promoted in the entire genre and that takes time! As has always been the case, "I Rise” reaches courtesy of VP Records who is probably still the best when it comes to Reggae album promotion (with Riley and I-Octane taking their business elsewhere, Stephenson and Etana remain on VP's roster apparently) (and if you needed anymore reason to love 2014, I-Octane, Tarrus Riley, Duane Stephenson and Etana ALL RELEASED ALBUMS THIS YEAR) [WHAT!] [BOOM!] and features the handiwork of the venerable Clive Hunt which is a first-time link for Etana who produces executively and also carries some of the greatest musician talent that Reggae has to offer, including Sly & Robbie and, of course, Dean Fraser. Now, while we all were definitely looking ahead to the new album, even though it came before we thought it might, we were just wanting to hear it. WONDERING about its quality, on the other hand, was not an experience in regards to "I Rise". It's an Etana album, You know what that means. Now let's all sit here and talk about how great it is.

Before arriving at the music on the album, I really do LOVE the cover of this album. Previously, I've given the potential distinction of 'Album Cover of The Year' (because we pay attention to stuff like that around here) to pieces which featured artwork but this album surely enters the discussion because Etana looks stunning here. As for what you actually do hear on the record - I do have to say that "I Rise" has a bit more of a kick than most of Etana's previous releases. There's a bit more intensity and force in the music and it does definitely prove to fit her style which is highlighted throughout by some sterling vocal displays. One such showcase does get us going as Etana channels the legendary Bob Marley with the album's intro, 'Selassie Is The Chapel'. The best way to describe this selection is to tell you its function: 'Selassie Is The Chapel' is going to make you cry. I cannot say that she set out to make it for that very reason (though she had to know it was going to happen) but a completely deaf person would be pushed to tears in the presence of this towering opener. The first full song on "I Rise" is also one of its definitive highlights. The giant social commentary 'How Long' is amongst the rather sizable class here and, though fairly simple and definitely straightforward the song has certain aspects, particularly in its delivery, which give it a very complex feel and it was one which well caught my attention. I also hear disgust and frustration in Etana's voice and, as I've said in the past, I LOVE when the mood and arrangement of a tune matches its lyrics and direction which is what happens here perfectly. A gem! Things really get moving on the even stronger next piece, 'On My Way'.

"I'm on my way
I'm on my way
Though the journey is so rough, I've got to carry on
I'm on my way
I'm on my way
Though the journey is so rough, I've got to carry on

The night is getting cold, no place to rest my head
Old stone became my pillow, concrete became my bed
Although the journey's long, got to keep on pressing on
The battle will be won at the end of the day!

Trodding through the streets I go
Everybody see me dun know
I meditation, strict dedication, straight from the roots I grow
At the end of the day, all of Jah children say -
'Clean hands, pure heart, righteous thought, and The Most High will guide your day'
I know when I get there, it won't be a sudden flight
Been toiling from sunup, still toiling through the night

BOOM! BREAK SOMETHING! Along with that great message, 'On My Way' is a full JOY to listen to. Easily with the most sonically gratifying songs found on "I Rise", this song is on its way to be a personal favourite of mine from Etana ever and it is THE best song I hear on this release… which is saying a lot. The opening lot of songs on the album is rounding out, just as it was started, with an excellent remake, this one, 'Stepping Out of Babylon' a find mould of the original sung by the immortal Marcia Griffiths.
There is a very nice stretch of four songs in the middle of "I Rise" which, although not entirely unexpected or unprecedented, definitely added to the overall enjoyment of the album. Certainly we've seen albums in the past which took a few love songs and dropped them right in the middle and that was that. However, I don't recall one, immediately, which did it this well. The first of the four, previous single 'Richest Girl' finds Etana getting her priorities corrected, saying that no matter how successful that she has been, her greatest achievement and the real wealth has been attained in falling in love. It is a great song with some of the better vocals shown throughout this set. Things get streamlined and simplified on the GOLDEN 'Love Song'. This composition is one about an unconditional love (biggup Machel Montano) and staying with someone no matter… how much ridiculousness they may put you through as long as the love remains. I, of course, have absolutely no parallels with which to connect this tune in my own life, but my Wife does. Check the swinging 'By Your Side' which kind of echoes both of the pieces just ahead of it and it, in a very comfortable and familiar way, sounds divine! The song also has a very loose and organic vibe at times (especially during the second verse and at it is end) which is delightful. And while 'Passing Thru' tackles the other side of love. This is a selection about the emotional commitment given to and toll taken by love when it isn't necessarily the best type. We've all been in situations where we've done something DUMB for love (and some of us, PROUDLY, still do them) so it's an entirely relatable tune in my opinion. In all, like I said, this little streak of songs really made this album better and, along with giving it a most essential dimension (you can't have an Etana album without a love song - I think it's actually illegal), it also gave it four more REALLY good songs.

Those four songs, which both end the first half of and begin the second half of "I Rise" are surrounded by even more MASSIVE output from Etana. A song like 'Jamaican Woman', for example, which finds the singer finding pride in both her nationality and her gender in a big way. I've probably listened to this tune more than any other on the album besides the two songs which I already knew because it really just makes you smile. The sound is somewhat unusual, but in a good way, but as an entire composition, again, this is definitely one of the best songs on the whole of "I Rise". The same is going to be said for the eponymous effort but probably on an even higher level.

"I was born strong
I was made for this
See, I've met so many hard times
When I though I couldn't make it
See, I've had my trials when my pillow dried my eye
Then the morning came and my wings took flight

I rise!
See, I'm hurting but no broken
Down but I won't die
I rise!
Soon I will reach the sky and still, I rise

Some say it's a mystery, how I still believe-
That in spite of all I've been through, I can still push the wheel
It's a little thing called faith that makes broken wings fly!"

TEARS! 'I Rise', like the album named after it, is spectacular and it gives the full album this kind of signature moment in terms of inspiration which is, obviously, one of the major themes for this project. Later, the big songs continue to roll in such as another single from "I Rise", the very compelling ‘Trigger'

This song is SO fascinating because it deals with a special kind of motivation which may lead a person into doing really bad things. So many times you'll hear a tune about people taking up the gun because they're attracted to flashy, material things but on 'Trigger', Etana shows that isn't always the case on a wholly CRUCIAL composition and, of course, it would take someone like Etana to lead us in that direction. An essential song which is not to be missed. 'Ward 21 [Stenna's Song]' is one which, unexpectedly, hit me personally. At its core, it is one about dealing with mental illness (and, specifically, things which bring on conditions) and, as I've said in the past, I'm someone who has dealt with mental illness my entire life and, though I don't know if Etana can say the same, she definitely captures some of the compounding and building emotions which lead people to that state. She does this with what is also somewhat of a social commentary, but this song is magic and, again, one which I heard myself in. I should also mention how I LOVE the way it ultimately develops as the music is showcased during its second half for a damn memorable section. Next is the all kinds of interesting 'Emancipation [Spoken Soul II]' which, in my opinion, is just as much of a 'musical experience' as it is an actual 'song', which I'm sure was the intent. Etana UNLEASHES herself all over this track which is musically and emotionally dazzling and it almost seems as if she just began to say what came naturally to her mind. Eventually, as the song's subtitle suggests, she begins to SPEAK and give her listeners a dissertation ["spirituality is a network linking us to The Most High, the universe and each other"] which you definitely do not want to miss. 'Emancipation' so vividly stands out on "I Rise" because so many wonderfully occurring idiosyncrasies and eccentricities which make it one terribly difficult to ignore. You'll also have trouble going around 'Jah Jah' (literally and figuratively). This song has… something about it which is hard to explain but is so damn infectious! It may be like an R&B-ish type of sound. I hear old school R&B in there somewhere but something else as well. Whatever it is and whatever you want to call it, Etana uses it to notch a FANTASTIC praising piece which is CANDY for your ears! And finally, I have to give credit for creativity and originality wherever I find it and the album's closer, 'Jam Credits' is brimming with them! What is this song about??? Just as the title says - it is Etana giving credit to her producers, her label, her musicians, her studios, her backup singers - everyone involved in making the music, set to music. I thought this was a great idea  and I can't remember anyone doing it previously. So, of all the great things to be thankful of when it comes to "I Rise", the very ingenious 'Jam Credits', for what it is, is definitely amongst the heaviest. 
Overall, unsurprisingly, she's done it again. To my opinion "I Rise" is well on the level of its predecessors and though I don't like to compare albums like this, I can comfortably tell you right now, it's better than either "Free Expressions" or "Better Tomorrow". Like I said, I really like the tone of this one altogether. She's always confident but on this album, Etana is aggressive and it seems like she really had a point to make and, with an effort like this one, I really hope that she's happy with it. Even if she isn't, I am! "I Rise" is another large piece of evidence of why history is likely to recall Etana as the mother of a generation of really exceptional Reggae music and while we may not have the fortune of having the hindsight of time - with an album like this one, you don't need it. A chunk of gold in a CD case. SPECTACULAR!

Rated: 5/5
VP Records
CD + Digital

Review #530


  1. her PR is well handled by VP records however she doesn't stand out as a reggae artiste properly .Lyrical content also visibly weak . Jah 9 does a much better job

    1. Hey mikey!! Stupid people who don't have any knowledge of the reggae industry are always entitled to their opinions. No matter how much PR you do on a album, people don't buy album because of PR, they buy album because they actually like the music from the artiste. You are obviously a hater, I doubt you even know Etana's music. Tell the people who pay you write this to sit and catch up on some Etana music, see why she's reggae's leading female artiste. You prick!!!

  2. "Jah Jah" from the album