Saturday, June 25, 2022

FLASHES!: A review of the ASAP Riddim

Up again. I think we've done at least a respectable job in our return on these pages, but while we were away there were definitely some changes that occurred and are, seemingly, here to stay. Some things have changed for the better in terms of the general experience of listening to music -- music, in general, has never ever been more accessible than it is now -- and others have changed for the worse in my opinion, but that change has been widespread and much of it is still in transition. Along with the expected and appreciated new faces (both artists and those behind the scenes), there's also been a direct musical shift in Reggae music to my ears. As I've said, while it has been in 'development' over the past decade or so, what we now regard as Dancehall music is something that I don't recognize at all under the genre. For me, much of it is Hip-Hop music done with Caribbean artists. The addictive Dancehall BOUNCE is largely a thing of the past, save for rare occasions in the hand of an increasingly selected (but wholly CELEBRATED by me) group of producers. Taking that a step further, there were a couple of individuals, veteran Dancehall artist Red Rat and producer NotNice who openly spoke on the nature of the change of the Dancehall in particular as far as, not only the sound being different, but the fact that a great deal of the genre is done in single songs. You virtually never see that one, potent, big riddim jump up anymore because very few people do them anymore and many of the younger artists won't touch them anyway. That makes me... SAD. I can't even put it better than that. I'm saddened by that change, coming from an era not too long ago where it was a chore to keep up with even the biggest riddims (going to call that the 'Riddim Driven Era'). Fortunately, Dancehall seems to be  the only genre with  that situation, in full. While I will say that Roots music (and even Soca, actually. More on Soca shortly) probably has not produced the same amount of big riddims in recent times than maybe a decade or so ago, the sound itself, THANKFULLY, has largely remained the same. Aside from, again, being placed in the hands of a larger variety of newer names in some cases, much of the foundation that was laid in the generation of people such as Marley and Tosh is still intact in 2022 but.... DAMN I have to say that I kind of miss the excitement of the moment of hearing a genuinely big riddim and then what follows in wondering exactly who else the producer has turned it over to. I can recall having full arguments with more casual heads and non fans of the genre who referred to the practice of having multiple vocalists taking on the same one track and they as lazy or a demonstration of a lack of creativity, but we grew up on it and, to this day, even the PROSPECTS of a truly impressive and well supported big riddim will definitely get my attentions. 

I cannot possibly be the only one who feels that way. Even if I am, amongst fans, clearly the labels have something else in mind and if we were to rewind the clock back a few years ago  to when we were very active (I used to WRITE MY ASS OFF on these things!) and even before that actually, and definitely one of the most impressive and CONSISTENT of outfits making big Roots riddims and remakes was one Irie Ites Records from out of France. Even before we get into their tracks, I can sit here and think of full blown albums for artists that II has done throughout the years that have stuck with me from the likes of King Lorenzo, the great Mark Wonder and, going wayyy back, Ras Mac Bean ("Pack Up & Leave", big underrated, under-known gem of an album), but despite working with names like those and even the likes of King Kong and Perfect Giddimani (more on him later), the label is probably best known still for dropping a very impressive string of big riddims. With a history dating back to the early 2000's, nearly two decades in, despite all that has surely changed around them, it appears as if things're as they normally are at Irie Ites.... and that is a great thing. 

A quick look back at the vault of riddims produced by Irie Ites shows reveals some STELLAR releases. Largely working with the legendary UK duo, Mafia & Fluxy, II has delivered farrrrrrrr more than their fair share of big tracks over the years. Standouts have included the Borderline ["It's time fi reach di borderline! No need fi hesitate, cause I don't really wanna be late!"], Zion ["Mi haffi hail di King, King! A pure love man ah bring, bring!"], Only Solution ["Only my Jah can save the world"], the Strange Things and several others... I could really go on and on (the Rocking Time!) (HUGE  underrated song on the Rocking Time that never got its push, 'Who I Am' by Chezidek. You stop reading this and go listen to it right now!) (back? Okay, let's continue). They put together an outstanding catalogue of music and, if you've been a consistent fan of the genre from the turn of the century of so, chances are quite high that you've ran into the works of Irie Ites in one way or another whether you've realize it or not.  If you haven't perhaps 2022 is a good time to become more officially acquainted with the work of the label. Just late last year, Irie Ites would curiously re-release the aforementioned Zion Riddim and now they are back with a set we have very much been looking forward to over the past month or, the ASAP Riddim (....seriously, that Chezidek tune on the Rocking Time Riddim is RIDICULOUS! CANNOT stop listening to it). Over the past few weeks or so, Irie Ites has sloooooowly crawled out the riddim, bit by bit, leading now into the full release. On one hand, it was frustrating as hell becuase not only were they peeling off big tunes, but they'd also established a roster of who had voiced the ASAP so, I don't know about you, but I had a running list of what I was looking forward to hearing most and we just had to wait! Dammit! Well the wait is now over as the ASAP Riddim was released, in full on the seventeenth of June and it has me thinking of old times. Not only is II known for churning out quality material, but they also, CLEARLY, put a lot of effort in marketing and publicizing their work. Riddim albums and compilations, in general, for the most part just aren't going to receive as much attention as projects from single artists (if they did, can you imagine how much money VP Records and Greensleeves may've spent (and MADE) back in 'da day when their respective overactive series were at their peaks???), but apparently no one ever told Irie Ites as they go all in on putting their projects together and then bringing great notoriety to them. The ASAP may be one of the finest in that regards as, like I said, quite a few people have spent quite a while waiting on it and, though the competition isn't great these days, one could well make the case that it is IMMEDIATELY one of the biggest riddim albums/Reggae compilations of the year thus far. That's even before you dig into the music and once you do, you'll soon come to see that notoriety isn't the only thing that the ASAP has in common with many of its older siblings. It's been awhile (and I don't feel like looking it up to see exactly how long it's been) but, once again, Irie Ites shows themselves to be amongst the very best when it comes to dropping a TRULY big riddim.

As I said, one of the most fascinating aspects of any riddim is just who the label has assembled in terms of vocal talents for it. Any outfit with any length of tenure has already shown that they have favourites, and Irie Ites is no different. The mix of artists on the ASAP is interesting because, although they do bring in a few ultra familiar names with whom they have previously worked, there's only REALLY a pair of names that I (PERSONALLY) most associate with Irie Ites present here. So it definitely has its surprises. On top of that, previously, as I mentioned, while much of II's work was done with Mafia & Fluxy, for their latest offering they have teamed up with French band, The Ligerians - best known by me for having been behind an album from a couple of years ago, "Timeless", which... I really need to review, because it was excellent, by someone who I've already told you about and will do so again, briefly. As it gets started, Irie Ites Records' latest creation, the ASAP Riddim puts one of its best feet forward (WHAT?!) in the form of 'Raggamuffin' by Anthony B (I was about to call it "previous single" out of habit, but... damn near every song here is technically a previous single). This tune, I've been on for the better part of a month and a half or so and I'm convinced that it was a vibe, at least to some degree. It does have kind of a loose direction, but 'Raggamuffin' also goes in so many other areas and does so quickly, that I just get the feeling that Anthony B heard the ASAP and constructed this wonderful and FUN tune around what he heard. The results are, easily, amongst the biggest winners here and should you think it was THE biggest song, well that's an easy opinion for you to backup because it's outstanding. UK veteran Brother Culture is always working hard and this time it is his intent to 'Build up a House', courtesy of the ASAP Riddim. This one kind of surprised me a bit because I listened through it a couple of times and just enjoyed its old school Dancehall appeal (which is just Brother Culture's style) before I really began to tune it in and when I did, what I found was a rather clever repatriation tune.

"Build up a house, Jah mek mi build a house
Build up a house, build up a African house
Build up a house, Jah mek mi build a house
Build up a house, build up a rootsman house

Cah first thing mi do, mi set di foundation
Then mi fill it up with concrete, mek mi house stand strong
And next thing mi do, mi go an fell timber
Then mi use good timber to plan di structure
Then mi go and hire cement mixer-
And a contractor and two labourer
Mi build up mi room dem one-by-one
Then mi roof it make out of corrugated iron
Round back yah fi mi house mi woulda build a goat pen
Keep one dozen goats and a hundred chickens
Di house yah weh mi build is gonna in Africa
In di front room mi want a air-conditioner
Wi waan some lawyer, construction worker
Wi want some doctor and hard worker

BOOM! Culture has it all worked out and he brings it through in such a delightfully SIMPLE way that you find yourself wondering... yeah, why can't we do this???! Brother Culture's is certainly a name we've run into over the years and he's almost always impressed, but it hasn't been consistent on our end (because he's definitely been active) and, hearing him here, I'm very exciting on the prospects of seeing exactly what I've been missing out on; and I suspect I won't be the only one thinking that after hearing 'Build up a House' (a situation which isn't rare on these type of sets, actually). And rounding out the opening of the ASAP Riddim is a tune which I was well looking forward to hearing and is one, I think, that they saved for the album's release date as the mighty Chezidek blesses us with 'The Game'. Chezidek is not only one of the two artists appearing on the ASAP who I most associate with Irie Ites (of the ones I just listed, he voiced all of them; the Zion, Borderline, Rocking  Time, Strange Things and Only Solution riddims, respectively), but his album was "Timeless" with The Ligerians, so there's an IMMENSE amount of chemistry at play here and you can hear it. Chezidek, for me, has been one of the  genre's finest and most reliable stars over the past decade or so and his effort on the ASAP sees him rolling right along at a typically very high level.

"Said it's all in the game
There's no loss, there's no gain
Sometimes laugh, sometimes cry, joy and pain
Said it's all in the game
Take it all, don't complain
Whether dry, low or high, is the same

Hello, hello this is the show
You must be up and ready to  go
No time to practice, you should know
Action-time, just let it flow
Oh yeah, we do it because we love
And we do it because we trust
And we looking up above
Cause we rising from the dust
And the children coming after, there's a duty here for us
Let us shine the light more brighter
No more searching for no answers
It is in the wind that blow
Cause the mission already started
Pushing forward, space to grow

Said it's all in the game
There's no loss, there's no gain
Sometimes laugh, sometimes cry, joy and pain
Said it's all in the game
Take it all, don't complain
Whether dry, low or high, is the same

Every drip and every drop
Gi dem everything we got
Every thing we got, every-everything we got
When wi ah win dem haffi clap
Wi haffi beat dem like a bat
Every inning some a dem ah nyam dem like a snack

DAMN Chezidek! DAMN! As I said, when you get into it, the Irie Ites have assembled some truly impressive vocalists to go on the ASAP Riddim and one of them will even leap out at the most casual of Reggae fans as a tune called 'Dangerous' brings together French veteran Nuttea and the great King Kong with Dancehall legend Beenie Man! I'm not going to look it up, I'm just going to assume that, at some point, Nuttea has crossed paths with II and in 2018, King Kong would send a full album, "Repatriation", through Irie Ites, but I can't at all recall Beenie Man working with II and to see his name here came as a very pleasant jolt. All three turn in fine performances and i found myself thinking while listening to it just how nice the vibes on 'Dangerous' are. It is somewhat disjointed, there isn't much back-and-forth between the three (I would presume they all voiced their pieces separately of one another), but when you stick them altogether it makes for a very big song and, again, IT'S BEENIE MAN ON AN IRIE ITES RIDDIM!! While I may have been shocked to see the link on 'Dangerous', the tune following it was the most expected of the entire lot. In 2016, Perfect Giddimani and Irie Ites did an album by the name of "Reggae Farm Work" and appearing on that release was 'A.S.A.P.', a combination featuring loooooongtime Irie Ites staple, Spectacular. That would have been the first time anyone laid ears on the ASAP Riddim to my knowledge and this appears to be a re-recorded (or at least remastered) and just BETTER version of the tune. Both Perfect and Spectacular have fiery and unpredictable styles so you can't don't really know what to expect on a combination between the two, but this one worked well for me PROBABLY because of the nature of the subject here. If you wanted to infuse a sense of urgency in your listener, you could do FAR worse than bringing together these two and, by song's end, it is crystal clear that there are some serious changes that need to take place in the world. And speaking of urgency: There's the matter of a MAMMOTH 'Thunder Storm' brewing in southern Trinidad and headed towards the entire world (no one is safe! Do not run! There is nowhere to run to!), being released by the great Queen Omega. If you didn't receive the full word on 'A.S.A.P.' (you may want to get your hearing checked out), the Queen will definitely let you in on precisely how critical things have gotten. This one finds her in a stunning lyrical form and, although I am damn partial and I admit it, 'Thunder Storm' is my single favourite track on the whole of the ASAP Riddim and that's saying something big because, along with what we've already discussed, there're some exceptional tunes still to be heard here. 

A fine example of that would be a piece that I've enjoyed from the very first time I listened to it about three or four weeks ago now, but has grown on me even more since then, Jah Mason's splendidly GREEN 'Mother Earth'. You can take the tunes about social and political consciousness and even self awareness and spirituality -- running immortal themes in Roots Reggae music -- and they are all poignant, important and crucial if we're to make a change in the world, but if we do not treat the world, ITSELF, good - well then we won't even arrive at the point where we're capable of having the discussion of how well we treat one another, because there will be no "one another". We need a rock to live on first. The Mason is sick, literally, in seeing how things are going ecologically and he's going to tell you about it and THRILL at the same time. 

"Look what dem doing to Mother Earth
You know, mi just caan stand it
Pollution inna di earth and dem ah destroy di planet
Doing to Mother Earth
You know, mi just caan stand it

The earth is sensitive, so earth is life
No litter di street, it better ah sweep
That's a good sight
Di drastic plastic ah black out di pipe
Lotta garbage mek di day turn night
When you dump inna di sea a dat di fish dem ah bite
Let's keep di earth clean
Mother Earth can smile for di loving children and child

Look what dem doing to Mother Earth
You know, mi just caan stand it
Pollution inna di earth and dem ah destroy di planet
Doing to Mother Earth
You know, mi just caan stand it

Let's work together
Mi seh 'YES' from now on
Recycling - dat a di latest vision
Every individual know your mission
Pollution every time when mi ah watch di television
So pledge to di earth and then you make your decision
Calling on di government, no matta di religion
No yellow tape and mi seh no red ribbon
How dem ah act lik dem stubborn?

Look what dem doing to Mother Earth
You know, mi just caan stand it
Pollution inna di earth and dem ah destroy di planet
Doing to Mother Earth
You know, mi just caan stand it

Mi tell dem seh TIME OUT
All these things mi ah FIND OUT
A east, inna west and mi seh ALL SOUTH
These are di things mi haffi talk bout
Wi nah like fi si garbage inna MY ROUTE
So mi haffi speak up outta MY MOUTH
Jah Jah Mason going back to MY ROOTS
So mi haffi hang on and is MY TRUTH!"

BOOM! 'Wicked Heart' is another one which has progressed on me just a bit from first hearing it, as the always compelling Lyricson takes on the ASAP Riddim. This isn't the Guinea native's first link with Irie Ites as he also appeared on the aforementioned Borderline Riddim with the sizable 'No Worry' ["Rasta wi nah worry fi wi know, nah worry fi wi know! Babylon system will be burning!"] and his return shows that maybe artist and label should have made  more time for each other over the years. 'Wicked Heart' is just what you're thinking it is as Lyricson chants down and flings flames upon nastiness and corruption anywhere he can find it and although it may walk an expected course in terms of direction, sonically 'Wicked Heart' is amongst the most interesting tunes here... again, as you may've expected coming from Lyricson who is probably one of the most DYNAMIC artists in all of modern Roots music in my opinion ["Nuff a dem a wolf inna sheep clothes. That's why wi and dem could never be close. Mislead di ghetto youths: Their only purpose. Stinkin babylon system designed fi hurt us. Mi si seh nuff a dem ah live inna confusion. Rasta come fi bun di lies and dis-sillusion. Put an end to all di war and sufferation. Tell wicked babylon a time fi redemption"]. Irie Ites return to the fruitful shores of Trinidad and this time they come back with the sweeping social commentary 'Redder Than Red' and the damn dependable but damn underrated Jah Defender. While not too dissimilar to a few of the songs on the album in its lyrical approach (and there's nothing wrong with that), 'Redder Than Red' features the Defender producing a sterling vocal performance... he always sounds good, but 'Redder Than Red' is very easy on the ears and strong lyrically as well. Jah Defender has enjoyed a good 2022 campaign with a few tunes and, significantly, a brand new EP, "Jah Movements", but 'Redder Than Red' is probably the single best tune that I've heard from him in some time. Finally (not really) is another tripled combination, this one bringing together Tomawok, Keefaz & Puppa Nadem for 'Calme avant la Tempête' ['Calm Before the Storm']. Of the three, I am only really familiar with the work of Keefaz (who has appeared on II productions previously), but apparently this is just what all three are doing these days as I've found two other selections, 'Big & Ready' and 'Family' (the latter of which is from earlier this year) done in a combination and for Irie Ites. It's a nice touch, doing a French tune for a French label and it probably would be the type of thing that I would have complained about being absent had it not been here. So, I always appreciate when people do things like this showing their own influence in what they have locally. Well done.

I would have also complained, and even more so, had II not included a clean instrumental version of the ASAP Riddim but, thankfully I don't have to do that because they did. The ASAP is a lovely modern Roots track with a dash of electricity and... this infectious other sound that I can't quite describe accurately. As a riddim, alone, it ranks highly in the annals of anything they've done. It's one of their best and it plays a nearly perfect backdrop to several big tunes, which is all you can 'ask' of a riddim.
Overall, it just feels good!!! Certain things in the world should just be a certain way: Irie Ites should be making big riddims and they are! Again, if you haven't had the opportunity to dig into what they've done thus far, the ASAP Riddim is not only a FINE riddim of its own, but it's a good place to start listening to one of the most decorated imprints in all of modern Roots Reggae. The ASAP takes me back to the early/mid 2000's when it seemed like a few times a year II would reach with some giant composition with a LOADED roster of artists and that is just what it is, nearly two decades later. In that time so many things have changed in our music but, apparently, some have also, BEAUTIFULLY, remained the same. The ASAP Riddim has time on its side, I've missed its type, but it definitely ranks as one of Irie Ites Records' finest creations to date. 

Rated: 4.45/5
Irie Ites Records
Vinyl + Digital

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

The Morning Rise Riddim

The Morning Rise Riddim

1. 'Rate You' by Anthony B
2. 'Doom to Die' by Luciano
3. 'Mama Bella' by Lutan Fyah
4. 'We Ah African' by Black Queen
5. 'You Need the Doctor' by Tallpree
6. 'We Gonna Party' by Kongquez Golden

Okay so, I thought I'd just bring to your attention a very cool recent release courtesy of a label that I do not think I've ever heard of and one which I've definitely never written about as one Golden Quest Empire has delivered the Morning Rise Riddim. When I first heard just a bit of the Morning Rise, I thought it may've been an African track and, after doing the research, I've come to see that the creator, GQE, has a very diverse background, so that may've actually been what they were going for directly. Apart from that, what also gripped my attention was the peculiar lineup of vocalists here. If you have one riddim and it has Luciano, Anthony B and Lutan Fyah on it, that's something I'm most likely going to want to hear and I wouldn't be surprised if you don't already a couple of dozen or so (if not more) sets like that.... but then you add in.... oh, I don't know, let's just say TALLPREE [WHAT!] as well, then you have something different entirely. Also present are Kongquez Golden (who may be the person behind GQE (BE CAREFUL about going through Kongquez Golden's catalogue, there's at least one very large misstep there that I just found) and a Black Queen who may want to think about getting a more Google-friendly name (biggup Agent Sasco), neither of whom shine here (Black Queen's song, 'We Ah African', isn't bad, but it is quite awkward in my opinion). To my opinion it's Luciano who steals the proverbial show with his lovely 'Doom To Die'. 
Looking for something a little different these days? Maybe check out the Morning Rise Riddim from Golden Quest Empire.... just thought I'd let you know.... going to bed now. 

Monday, June 20, 2022

Skinny Fabulous is Chaotic

The grumble at the head of this thing is just.....

Though I still haven't recovered from his shot earlier this year, 'Garn', back again is chaos master, St. Vincy fireball, Skinny Fabulous, with his cut of the intoxicating Grimmy Riddim for DJ Bass and Irvin 'Ace' Loctor, 'Chaotic'. It is more high-powered filth from someone who just continues to POUND the masses with excellent Power Soca music. The same track backs at least solid tunes from Jamesy P and Problem Child (Jamesy P''s tune, 'Who Allowed That?' is hilarious), but if Skinny Fabulous continues his brilliant run with more ear candy for those who LOVE earaches. BOOM!

Thursday, June 16, 2022

The Vault Reviews: Upside Down by Buju Banton

Maybe I'm wrong and I'm about to say something stupid (won't be the first time, most certainly will not be the last), or maybe it's just the state of the times, but it seems to me that the 'state' of Reggae albums might just be changing. In previous times, for the most part, it seemed as if the Reggae album was a bit of an afterthought. In contrast to.... pretty much every other genre (one of the few exceptions being Soca) many albums just kind of seemed to come up and, from what I heard, the actual artist would receive virtually nothing for them (you may remember Tanya Stephens giving away an album for completely free after dropping two incredible sets which, apparently, netted her nothing monetarily) (I think I recall Spragga Benz saying a similar thing) if anything at all really. Perhaps as a result of that, what we would see once upon a time was particular artists who would, almost habitually, release multiple albums annually and maybe one out of every handful or so would truly register, while the rest would be left to thrill their most faithful of followers (like You and I); but like I said, there were instances (and individuals) which (whom) had different circumstances. Apart from individuals who routinely received international attention (more on them in just a second) I'm always reminded by the outstanding run enjoyed by Capleton in the 2000's. The albums "More Fire", "Still Blazin'" and "Reign Of Fire", especially, were so widely well regarded and well-publicized and it helped raise the level of Capleton, in general. I can recall reading an article where the writer rather casually said that he had overtaken Beenie Man in terms of popularity around the time and when you go back to that era, those releases STILL stand out for him. VP Records helmed all three of those sets and their products have consistently been.... pretty much the best presented in all of modern Reggae music, consistently. The label has always seemed to operate exclusively with some of the biggest names in the genre (like Capleton, Lady Saw, Beenie Man, Beres Hammond and others), while also keeping an ear towards who had hits at the time and would, presumably, be profitable (Turbulence has a big hit called 'Notorious', VP makes an album called "Notorious". Jah Mason has 'Princess Gone', VP has "Prince Gone: The Saga Bed". Norris Man had one also with "Persistence") and it's worked out for them. The group of Reggae and Dancehall artists who have received more international attention have also done well with releasing full projects. The likes of Sean Paul, Shaggy, the aforementioned Beenie Man, Wayne Wonder, Baby Cham and Damian Marley have scored and continue to in some respects to this day; and today we celebrate Koffee (for SONY!), Shenseea, Spice (how wonderful is that? Three of the genre's biggest albums of the last year have come from women!) and figure to be doing it again this year for the GRIZZLED Beenie Man, Bounty Killer and Sean Paul shortly. And I love him so I simply have to add the fact here that Sizzla has also signed a distribution deal with US label Def Jam Records (and he is, reportedly, working on a new one for this year as well called "Africa 54"). So, again, maybe I'm just completely wrong, but maybe things are starting to change on some level when it comes to Reggae albums.

If you looked at it from the perspective of Buju Banton, however, you'd likely come away thinking that things were 'business as usual'. While he probably has never received a spotlight on his work as large as that gotten by Sean Paul and Beenie Man at their respective peaks (although "Too Bad", with 'Driver A', definitely would have come close), Buju has always occupied an awfully unique position, particularly when it comes to international appeal. For some strange ass reason, he has well found a home amongst fans who are not typically Reggae fans; and while you can definitely say the same for the aforementioned likes of Beenie, Sean Paul and Shaggy, those artists have at least made an attempt to capitalize on that level of attention. I don't think Buju Banton has. The result has likely put his global popularity between that which Capleton once enjoyed and the likes of Sean Paul etc. and like all of them, it has made the moments when Buju Banton releases albums a very big deal - some of the biggest in the entire genre. 


And that all magnified in the decade long period between 2010 and 2020 when Buju didn't release an album at all. As testament to just how big his albums were, his 2010 release, "Before The Dawn" would net the artist his first Grammy Award for Best Reggae album, after having previously been nominated for the honour on four different occasions (and I'm about to tell you about another album he did which was also nominated for a Grammy). Just days following (ten of them, if my research is correct (I initially misremembered it as being the very next day)) picking up that Grammy in 2011, Buju was convicted of drug charges in the US and sentenced to a long term prison sentence from which he did not emerge until late 2018! Since then, Buju had been on a tear, having IMMEDIATELY returned to form and popularity and though his travel schedule (travel ABILITY) had become limited, what you actually heard from him didn't suggest someone who was 'rusty' and had, instead, spent his time incarcerated STILL working on his craft. It would take two and a half years for Buju and company to put the crowning jewel on his return as, in the summer of 2020, he would deliver "Upside Down", his first album since his release from prison and, as I said, his first release altogether in TEN YEARS. Like virtually all of his projects, in one way or another, "Upside Down" would come via Buju's own Gargamel Records imprint, this time with Roc Nation on board handling distribution (and that has typically been the case for him: Gargamel Records does  the actual musical work, with a big-named label doing the distribution) (he's also worked wiith the likes of Atlantic, the aforementioned VP and Tommy Boy Records in the past). It's always interesting to me the way that Buju's albums tend to be received. He spent the vast majority of the 1990's releasing albums which were widely hailed for their excellence, including 1995's "'Til Shiloh", which is regarded as his opus (because it is) and one of the greatest Reggae albums of all time from anyone (because it's that too), but it's almost as if his status has risen to a certain level where people have FULLY began to digest his work. Because of that (and this is a good thing in my opinion), for reasons strictly relating to music (and OBVIOUSLY for reasons outside of the studio, but that goes without saying at this point (....even though I just said it), Buju may be THE most critiqued Reggae artist that we've seen. You'll find reviews for his albums in some of the most unusual corners of the internet and others which're typically reserved for Hip-Hop (or, "urban music", in general, as it is called). That's where he's found an audience and, apparently they turned out en masse for "Upside Down". What they found when they got their hands on it was, while not his absolute best work and definitely a little 'bloated' --though forgivably so in this instance -- was damn solid and a VERY FUN release from one of Reggae music's greatest champions of all time. Let's talk about it!

Surprisingly, even at this stage of it, leading up to the release of "Upside Down", Buju Banton would score with, arguably, some (two of them, especially) of the bigger hits of his entire career. As if the album needed more flames to help build the anticipation for its arrival, Buju seemed to be on a roll just prior to it and that material definitely went to become some of the featured songs on this project (and when you first heard them, you KNEW something was coming). The first of the twenty tracks which span an hour and twelve minutes found Buju offering a prayer with 'Lamb Of God'. While it is an actual song, 'Lamb Of God' is, essentially, an intro. It sounds exactly how you think it does. You'd hear it at a church service or a funeral and you'd be there singing right along - it serves its purpose. Next, we have another song that also does what it's supposed to do and comes as no surprise in 'Yes Mi Friend'. Most appropriately, this one features Buju alongside one of those "friends", Stephen Marley, who also produces. It was an interesting thought on how Buju would deal with his incarceration and release, musically, and 'Yes Mi Friend' is his first response. He talks about just how HAPPY he is to be a free man and some of the tribulations he faced while in prison (I've never been locked up in any way, but SEVEN YEARS sounds like a really large chunk of life to be missing out on and clearly the artist is excited to re-begin his life and get back to what he does like very few others ever have.

"Yes mi friend!

Mi deh pon street again

Yes mi friend!

Dem set mi free again"

That line of thought continues with the next selection 'Buried Alive', where Buju directly expresses his gratitude for being out of that situation. 'Buried Alive' had this very BIG vibe to it and came courtesy of the wizard Steven 'Lenky' Marsden, who helms several tracks throughout "Upside Down" (including one I've already told you about, 'Lamb Of God'). What stands out for me on this one is how Buju takes his current standing, as a free man, as a sign that he now MUST do something. He must make some grand contribution to the world, almost a sign of saying 'thank you' for his freedom. You and I will be sitting here to see what that turns out to be, exactly, but if he spends the rest of his days making music like this, I'm sure that will be just good enough. If it sounds like.... oh, I don't know, maybe 'Blessed', then it might even be a little extra from the artist - going above an beyond. The Dave Kelly produced single was the initial sign of something truly SPECIAL on "Upside Down". This BEAUTIFULLY grimy and minimal [authentic] Dancehall track backs Buju who uses it to set forth a message which has its roots in social change and revolution, but this brand of revolting is a calmer one. There's a certain level of security and CONFIDENCE behind it as, when you have a SUPREME Protector behind you ["Wi ah try move outta di shack. Dem ah cry and ah spy and ah try stop wi clock, GUESS A WHO HAVE WI BACK"] what problems may arise are, at best, temporary. I don't say this too often about a song, but I really get the feeling about 'Blessed', that Buju ENJOYED creating it. Whatever the circumstances and wherever he was at the time - it just sounds like he was having a really good day. The delivery is vibrant and is about as on-point that would expect from a bona fide master of this sound like himself. The same could well be said about the syrupy sweet 'Memories' which rounds out the first quarter of "Upside Down". The tune features another of Buju Banton's really good friends, US R&B singer, John Legend. 'Memories' (also produced by Lenky) (he produces the next one I'm going to tell you about as well) is an ultra-catchy and infectious love song that has both soft and hard edges (fitting to the artists singing it). Their  musical relationship goes back well over a decade and the chemistry that Buju and Legend have developed becomes crystal clear on this  gem of a lover's set. I'll also jump ahead and mention the similarly situated 'Cherry Pie', as it features Buju alongside the well accomplished Pharrell Williams. I'm not going to spend too much time on it because I almost feel like scrutinizing it too much kind of defeats the purpose of the song, but I will tell you is that, even if you do not LOVE 'Cherry Pie'' (and I do not) (although I am a bigger fan of the song than I am of the actual dessert), this thing will STAY with you. Maybe not so much via a dominant, hard-to-shake chorus, as much as the prevailing vibes of the entire track (steered by long time Buju collaborator, Jermaine Reid) - you will be long done spinning 'Cherry Pie', but still dealing with it in some way, 'trust me'.

Both 'Lovely State of Mind' [Lenky] and 'Appreciated' [Reid] are two more love songs on "Upside Down". Although the latter is solid with its classic vibe, I slightly preferred the extremely CRISP and curious sounding 'Lovely State of Mind'. For its part, however, 'Appreciated' very much has a nice free-flowing and organic sound to it and.... as I sit here listening to it again, it may be better than I'm giving it credit for [note: I previously wrote it as "I definitely preferred" 'Lovely State of Mind' and the edit was to replace "definitely" with "slightly"]. I wouldn't at all be surprised if it turned out that 'Beat Dem Bad' was either a full freestyled type of tune or if it developed from such a level. It goes all over the place and I'm not calling that a bad thing. The multilayered and multifaceted riddim underpinning it (courtesy of Reid) might actually even promote such a tune and, perhaps, just attempted to climb on this thing in a more straight-forward wouldn't have been the best route anyway. 'Beat Dem Bad' was just all kinds of interesting. If you say you disliked it, I wouldn't blame you. If you said it was amongst the album's best, I wouldn't disagree. To my opinion, "Upside Down" truly reached its apex between a pair of early singles released for the album and the first of them to appear in its tracklist is also my absolute favourite, the MASSIVE Dave Kelly guided 'Trust'.

Trust was hypnotic, DELICIOUS and brilliant [authentic] hardcore Dancehall music. There wasn't a drop of any other types of genres or anything else, it was full on modern Dancehall and Buju SHINED! The tune also had some type of bigger relevance as Buju would warn everyone (in an almost comedically overly cautious ["So if you meet a girl and you plan fi freak it. When you go her housem make sure you sweep it. And find di camera dem anywhere she keep it. IF SHE GO BATHROOM, MAKE SURE YOU PEEP!"] and paranoid way) to be fully aware of our surroundings at all time and to be careful how you engage on social media, but that was a gift to be inherited after you got through the FILTHY vibes of 'Trust'. 

There is a solid pair of songs in the next batch on "Upside Down" that I feel have somewhat gone overlooked and underappreciated as both 'Moonlight Love' and 'Cheated' were at least very good with the latter being damn near exceptional, in my opinion. The venerable Steven Stanley cared for 'Moonlight Love' and it turned out to be a subtly DIVERSE love song (really listen to that tune and you'll hear just how much is going on in there. It almost sounds 'Arabian' at  times). I'm not attempting to call it the greatest of anything, but 'Moonlight Love' can just make you feel really good if you give it the opportunity. And then there's 'Cheated' which borders somewhere near brilliant at times. 

"Anna Maria its over!

You really let me down

I thought the love we shared was sincere and profound

The way you told me that you loved me let my love come down


It was all about di money, fancy cars and such


Sold your life worthwhile fi mi designer style


Caught up inna world filled wid trivial stuff

And I never took di time to see it was a gold-rush


Not even a postcard"

I believe the producer here, Pase Rock (with DJ Ross One), has some type of working relationship with Roc Nation and I might want to look up some more of what he's done as, though clearly Hip-Hop influenced (which is not my thing), the sound of 'Cheated' is incredibly interesting, regardless of what genre it actual falls within. Impressive British export Stefflon Don makes an appearance on "Upside Down" and does more than hold her own with her contribution to the nice R&B-ish 'Call Me'. This was a big spot for Stefflon - it definitely put her in the attentions of a lot of people who'd never come across her prior to appearing on this album and, largely because of her (as Buju does precisely what you would expect from him on such a piece), 'Call Me' was very memorable. Then we have a little song called 'Steppa'. The other GIANT pre-album single that I alluded to in 'Trust', this Reid produced drop was pure genius. The song worked so well, at least for me, because of how ULTRA realistic it was. Buju was talking about the 'steppa', the iconoclast to the much (unfortunately) celebrated 'shotta'. A steppa is positive and progressive and, though certainly not perfect, knows right from wrong and tries to do what is right. The great part was that while Buju definitely isn't celebrating negativity and violence, nor is he even condoning it, but he is acknowledging it. He knows it is there and likely always be ["SAY YOU A BADMAN - FINE!"], but he's hoping that his song will lead more youths to make the choice to "step fi di betta" and he's actually glorifying the positivity here. The refusal to turn an unrealistic (NON-EXISTENT) blind-eye to what is actually going on, put 'Steppa' somewhere in the stratosphere for me. It's one of the best songs on this album and it's one of the best songs Buju has EVER done in my opinion (and I am SERIOUSLY considering changing my vote for album's finest). The playful 'Good Time Girl' rounds out this group and it certainly isn't a bad song (would have a hard time being so, produced by Lenky) and if you need something to make you bob your head and step your feet, it has you! Just a nice vibes about a girl looking for a good time and there's nothing wrong with that.... unless of course that girl looking for a good time is your girl and she's looking for it with someone else! That, on the other hand, is fucked up.

I hear small echoes of a personal classic from Buju Banton's vault when I hear 'The World Is Changing' which was produced by the legendary King Jammy, as it ever so slightly reminds me of the MAMMOTH 'Up Ye Mighty Race' from the "Friends For Life" album (ridiculously almost twenty years old now!). Both tracks feature this unique POUNDING sound to them, at least to my ears and it immediately brought me back to that special place in my memory. Like 'Up Ye Mighty Race', 'The World Is Changing' is a sizable social commentary and one where Buju thrills. '400 Years' is an even stronger selection. Nearly a complete chant, this tune has an AURA surrounding it (supplied by Lenky) which helps send it near the tops of the album in my opinion. Take that and combine it with a Buju, CLEARLY up for the moment (I'm thinking that the first time he heard the instrumental for '400 Years', it probably lit his face up! A credit must also go to veteran Nikki Burt, Carol Dexter and Buju's own sister, Adena Myrie, for providing SUBLIME backing vocals as they all come together to say that oppression, in general, has been in power for entirely too long - and it's time to make some changes. The immortal Bobby Digital gifted to us all (so, SO many wonderful songs. What a life that man lived!) the golden 'Helping Hand', easily one of the biggest moments on the album. Despite Buju's obvious passion on the tune, I like songs like this because what they do is -- at least in my opinion -- is to reassert COMMON SENSE. Of course if there is someone that you can help and you can do something for (with very few exceptions), you do it! None of asked to be here, but helping one another definitely makes the journey easier and that's the heart of 'Helping Hand' and it's one of the central themes in all of Roots Reggae music, if you think about it.

"And it doesn't matter how small, it's  never too little to share


A friend is a person or someone who is always there

Who can feel your joy and know your pain and know all the trouble you bare

Don't you know it takes one hand to wash the other?

If you should see your brother falling, help him if you can

The spirit of Jah does not always strive with man

If you should se your brother falling, lend a helping hand"

Have I told you how big of a deal Buju Banton's album tend to be??? Along with the aforementioned Dave Kelly, King Jammy and Bobby Digital (and with respect to Lenky and Jermaine Reid, who're always around when he works), the artist also linked with the great Clevie (of Steely & Clevie fame) (biggup Steely) for the glorious social commentary that was 'Rising Up'. I feel inclined to mention this before I forget to: At the end of 'Rising Up', we get a DELICIOUS seventy seconds or so of the clean riddim and if you read my work to any degree, you know exactly how much I love when producers do that because it shows to me that they REALLY enjoyed their creation and felt that, just like the vocal artists, it, too, deserves its time in the spotlight. The sound of 'Rising Up' rates highly on "Upside Down" altogether and Buju makes the most of it. Though on the short side (as you would expect it to be while carrying seventy seconds of an instrumental), 'Rising Up', a call to change, definitely makes an impact and it did so in what will certainly go down in history as one of the most crucial times, socially, in the history of our species ["The cost of confrontation shall be economic crisis"]. And lastly is the single finest musical display on the whole of "Upside Down", the PILLARING 'Unity'. This thing sounds like something out of Femi Kuti's catalogue, it is a STUNNING piece of music once again from Reid. Buju Banton does have a point to make here which is threatened to be overwhelmed by the spectacular sound here about bringing all children of Africa a little closer together ["I know, among us, there are wolves among the flocks; BUT NO ONE CAN STOP US AND, TO CONQUER, THEY CANNOT!"] and what helps push that message across is just how much FUN he seemed to have in making this song. On more than one occasion during 'Unity', he just breaks out into a laugh and it is a remarkable moment to wrap up this album. I also want to mention, just as there was the case at the end of 'Rising Up', the vibe of 'Unity' also gets its time clear of vocals, but at the head of the song; before Buju says even a single word, the riddim plays on for nearly a minute! That's even more rare to do it at the beginning of the song, but just as beautiful! Altogether I want to make the point that the final five selections of "Upside Down" -- 'The World Is Changing', '400 Years', 'Rising Up', 'Helping Hand' and 'Unity' -- represent what is TRULY some of the strongest material you'll find here. In retrospect, 'Unity' was probably THE biggest hit amongst them, but none of them did the damage that their quality would have suggested that they might to me. So you can do it for yourself: Pay a very high amount of attention at the end of this album.

Overall, yes, the biggest complaint with "Upside Down" would be that it's too big. Again, it's understandable exactly why it was that big, but not everything here was absolutely crucial and they were never going to be at that length. Still, for what was here and what this set was representing at the time (and will represent historically, when we begin looking back on it), "Upside Down" was not only FITTING, but it was solid as well. I did not particularly enjoy "Before The Dawn" when it reached and I still don't (though 'Rasta Can't Go' has always been and will always be a big tune) and because of that, "Upside Down" instantly became Buju Banton's best work since 2009's epic "Rasta Got Soul" (though I still favour "Rasta Got Soul" ahead of "Upside Down" a bit). Assuming that, at not yet fifty years of age, Buju Banton still has quite a lot of music to make, I believe that we'll look back at "Upside Down" as an obvious standing point of the second (or third, actually) portion of his career (first would have been Dancehall star, the "Til Shiloh" began the second) and when we do look back, what we'll hear is someone who, despite having been 'away' in a very unusual manner, was still very near the height of his powers and CLEARLY still capable of capturing the attention of the entire Reggae listening world in the palm of his hand. 

Rated: 4/5
Gargamel Records/Roc Nation
CD, Vinyl + Digital

Sunday, June 12, 2022

50 Years A King

"Warlord nuh business.


The single-most influential figure the Dancehall has ever produced: FIFTY years today - supreme respect goes to the warlord, big bad Bounty Killer