Stare down. There is definitely something to be said for an artist having an ability to attract attention and entertain. Depending on the genre we look at, in fact, it may be one of the, if not THE most important trait they may have, in some cases even more than actually making good music. In Soca, for instance, being the wickedest lyricist/writer in the studio and really bad on stage will probably keep you employed - writing for someone else - but just about any level of stardom is almost certain to elude you until/unless you decide to pick a different career. Even in Dancehall music where you can live rather nicely and build quite a reputation by being a great writer, if your own delivery and/or performance is less than standard, you're going to have problems as well. There're exceptions, but if your music isn't entertaining and your presentation of it isn't enjoyable, there will forever be a level which you are unable to hit. One of the more interesting ways someone can entertain is through albums. We don't typically think of that as the case, especially not in the way we're going to look at it today - a Roots Reggae album - but when you find an otherwise very talented artist who may not be at or near his/her respective best at the time who can still delivery an album which you can find captivating (and not because it's just all kinds of horrible). The obvious example here goes to Sizzla Kalonji who, on numerous occasions (largely because his catalog finds that when he is "at or near his" best, the results are almost always CLASSIC), has pushed albums which were pretty good and ENTERTAINING despite clearly being several notches below himself at a prime level. Albums such as "Rastafari Teach I Everything", "Words of Truth" and definitely "Waterhouse Redemption" exemplify this to completion (and probably about a dozen others as well). In those cases, while those albums aren't considered masterpieces (although I may try to convince you one day that the first of them is), listening to them now, more than six years after the final one reached initially, is a fine experience. What we find ourselves dealing with today is even a step down from those pieces but still a burgeoning example of someone very talented being OBVIOUSLY several steps behind their best work and still managing to string together an album which isn't the greatest, but is a well interesting listen.
Of course, Jah Mason has done fine work in the past. His "Never Give Up" was a "Modern Classic" to my opinion and most people (as I found out firsthand) think that his "Wheat & Tears" album was even better (they're full-on wrong, obviously, but they do think it). Other albums come in back there like "Most Royal" and that yellow one whose name I can never remember and you have a pretty good collection of sets, as we examined fairly recently on "Discography: Jah Mason". This album, "Surprise Dem" unfortunately (or fortunately for today, I suppose), isn't amongst the best of those and I could name you two or maybe even three other albums in there which are better than it (definitely "Unlimited"), but it was still a very entertaining listen and, much like the subject of the last review I did, Al Pancho's "Righteous Men", an album which has been through quite a few things with me over the years.
"Surprise Dem" was the first of a pair of albums which came via the very nice Vikings Productions (probably best known now for the work they've done with the brilliant Romain Virgo), with the second being "No Matter The Time" which would arrive in 2008, four years after this record's release date. "No Matter The Time" I did, at one point I THINK, really like this album but it was for only a short time and I would eventually leave it alone as an average or slightly sub-average album… and I was right. "Surprise Dem” isn't very good, but if you listen to it now, it's just kind of a FUN Roots Reggae album which, in my opinion, is its lasting and prevailing quality. The Mason, with his kind of fiery and moody style is someone PERFECT to make such a project and I don't think we look at and give credit to Roots albums for being entertaining very often, when that is their main attribute, but I can think of quite a few albums over the years which immediately strike me as being FUN. Although a considerably better album than this one, "Giddimani" from [Mr.] Perfect [Giddimani] was an extremely amusing and dazzling album and I can think of others from the likes of Natural Black, the aforementioned Sizzla Kalonji (like "Hosanna") and several others which were just great listens and may not register in the same way we judge Roots Reggae albums in terms of what and how powerful the message is and how well it is 'given' to the listener. Now you could very well apply that to this album and find that it is, again, not as good as most of the Mason's other work but, even in that, it's not completely without substance. Jah Mason's still one of the most talented artists of his era and even at his worse (commonly referred to as "Keep Ya Head Up"), he's going to be substantially better than your average current Roots Reggae artist. So, again, I'm not saying that this album, even in the terrestrial sense, is a bad one when compare to just about anyone else. The Mason, also, is almost the sole source of the fun factor here. The album isn't one which I would necessarily call 'dynamic', for the most part, but if you've listened to Jah Mason to any degree, you know that he well has a captivating delivery and feel to his music as well and entertainment is found within him alone. It's also found on this album. Want to know why? I'll tell you.
|"No Matter The Time" |
The way this album is situated, the first quarter of it just happens to have most of the actual substance. Checking it at just twelve selections, "Surprise Dem" put its proverbial best foot forward literally as almost everything you're likely to remember (eight years later), is set right on top. For example, check the opener 'I'll Neva Give Up' which, although it isn't what I would call a great song, is very solid despite being one of the least catchy tunes you’ll find here. I really like how the track just kind of flows along. Outside of the chorus, which is nearly outstanding, there's nothing within this song which leaps out at you. It's not one of the Mason's better written pieces, it may not even be one of the best on this album, but it's a very nice listen with some definite 'body' to it. Next we have the HEAVY 'Too Hot Fe Dem'. This is a song which I have also gone forward and back in terms of how I feel about it, but I don’t know that I've ever wavered in the thought that it was one of the best songs on "Surprise Dem" (because it is).
"Mi go tell dem seh mi Black
Dem seh mi too Black fi dem
Mi go tell dem seh mi hot
Dem seh mi too hot fi dem
Mi still ahgo sing dem song ya pon dem track fi dem
Cah Blackness mi use fi set di trend
Too Black fi dem and dem ah wonda wah mi ah refer
Blackness a mi legacy, it cannot be measured
Di colour stand out, no matter di time, mo matter the weather
No hide through no prayer, mi caan hide mi colour"
The song, again, not one of Jah Mason's finest written (notice the trend), is still rather clever in my opinion and one of the signature moments of this album. THE 'autograph' of the album, it's best tune, comes in next in the form of 'Red Gold & Green' which is a tune where the entertainment and the POWER cross, because anyway you analyze this one it comes up as a winner.
"The Red, the Gold, the Green, the ancient colours
The sun, the rain, the wind, that's Jah powers
The Red, the Gold, the Green, the ancient colours
The sun, the rain, the wind, that's Jah powers
Dem neva heard of di colour nor di mixture
Red, Gold and Green, tell dem dat a di fixture
Fresh vegetation - you betta check di texture
All over di world about di colour, dem ah lecture
Ethiopian colour well you got to have it next ya
Anywhere, anytime, mek it flex ya"
This is a SMILING moment from "Surprise Dem" where the sonic appeal is so nice and even if you sift right through it, what you find is an excellent piece going to, just like the song preceding it, instill a massive sense of pride in people of Afrikan descent. Big, big tune!
As I mentioned (or at least I think it did), "Surprise Dem", when you look at it for its best, is an album largely comprised of selections which may not (are not) be big tunes, but have things which are attracting. Almost every song remaining fits into that category and the two or three that do not, do not because they aren't good enough and you can go right down the line sequentially to make the point. 'Do You Owna Thing’ is one of a few tunes left on the record which are kind of 'borderline good' (and I have a theory on all of this now which I'll tell you about shortly). This tune had a very nice vibes about it with its rolling sound and a message which kind of told us to MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS, but make sure your "business" is righteous works and not negative toward someone else. Next is the title track which is THE song I immediately start to sing in my head when I think of this album. No, it wasn't very good if you actually take a listen to it, but it wasn't awful and it had a very nice melody which, obviously, sticks with you a great deal. 'Jah Gonna Spank Dem', odd title and all, was decent and had its moments (its quality level probably places it in the latter stages of the top half of tunes on the album) (which is unfortunate), but ultimately you remember it for the melody and the chorus. And then there's 'Burn Dem For A Purpose' which is (a WICKED title) a song that I have enjoyed and not enjoyed throughout the years definitely - kind of a small example of the album as a whole. This one isn't necessarily a tune whose melody stays with you and it's kind of awkward in one aspect, but there is something which makes it so appealing to my ears at times and, thankfully, right now happens to be one of those instances. 'Time To Save Yourself' starts off really, really bad before it… saves itself from being an awful song. Perhaps more than any other song on the whole of "Surprise Dem", this is a good example of Jah Mason's style. It's all across the proverbial board as he sings, chants, straight deejays and does just about any other thing he can do to get through the tune. By its end it is one of the best songs on this album, but I would tell you that should you encounter this song and it is one of the first tunes you've heard from the artist, imagine its quality multiplied by about five and its intensity doubled and then you'll have the wonder which is the Mason at his best. And finally here I'll mention the album's closer, 'Whatever', which was Jah Mason's cut of Vikings' BOOMING Turban & Robe Riddim from a few years back ("circle the globe in a turban and robe!") (biggup Capleton). This is the album's changeup as it changes things from modern (and slightly old school) Roots Reggae music directly into perhaps a neo-modern form of Dancehall.
"Whatever you think, that's what you is
Whatever you speak, that's what you live
You got to be real positive
Whatever you think, that's what you is
Whatever you speak, that's what you live
You got to be real positive
Di youth dem ah si di livity
Mi show dem positivity -
Cleanliness - to di best of dem ability
Di school and di facility
Teach dem bout The Trinity
No teach dem bout no swearing
No teach dem bout no poverty"
Again, the song isn't top notch, it isn't even approaching that level, but it's nice to the ears as was almost everything on that stinging riddim. The lingering trio of tunes are something less than decent in my opinion, beginning with 'Princess Neva Leave Me'. This is just a straight forward tune which is kind of sappy with the chorus which doesn't really excite at all. Apparently the tune was Mason's final plea, however, before realizing that his princess was, in fact, gone (WHAT!). 'Bigga Joy' isn't too far out of line with several of the other tracks here but is totally unexceptional and makes a really bad lyrical choice at the chorus in my opinion. And last is 'Neva Loose [sic] Faith', a relatively standard Roots track accompanied by a "relatively standard" R&B/Hip-Hop riddim which doesn't really work, although incidentally, it is one of the album's better lyrical efforts.
I always say that when I actually put my reviewer's mind onto an album it definitely makes things a bit clearer, even if I've been listening to that album for the vast majority of a decade or so and that's ringing accurate in the case of "Surprise Dem" as I can fully and confidently say that the reason I feel this album is lacking quite a bit is because it's just lacking lyrics. So many times in its duration, especially on 'Whatever', it almost seems as if Jah Mason simply runs out of words at the time and just starts running together random phrases, words and sounds. If you are a fan of the Mason's, you know that his lyrics are some of his strongest attributes and to go into an album and have him not showing that off is a definite negative.
Overall, that doesn't mean that "Surprise Dem" is a total waste, however. Having gone digital within the last couple of years or so, you can pick through this album (especially from the first three songs, I'd suggest). And on top of that, as I said, it can be a fun album. Trying to rank it within Jah Mason's catalog, the only album which I would definitely say it was better than was the "Keep Ya Head Up" and it isn't MUCH better than that one (although it's not likely to descend to that level in my opinions because "Keep" was basically a Hip-Hop) and I guess I would also call it better than "Working So Hard" as well but, again, not by much. What "Surprise Dem" had going for it was that it was a nice listen. I've had such a changing of minds on this one throughout the years and now I think that it was because it sounds nice, but WHAT sounds nice isn't the best (if that makes any sense). I would only recommend this album to newer fans of Jah Mason's and maybe even the entire genre. Older fans, however, may have an interesting time picking through an album which, still, comes via one of the era's most talented lights in Jah Mason who remains interesting as he always does, but was operating at about half strength on this one.
CD + Digital