Sunday, August 8, 2021

'The One???': A Review of "On A High" by Sizzla

Sometimes you just need certain things. While I would have had nothing in the way of a 'checklist' at the beginning of the year when it came to music, had I really thought about it, I probably could have come up with a pretty nice list containing things (specifically albums) that I would have liked to see in 2021. Like what? Well, as to what we've already seen - any time you can get a new album from Sara Lugo, that's a winning year musically and we got that precisely in the outstanding "Flowers". Similarly, you have to have some Vaughn Benjamin to make it a good year and, with "Polarities" and "Righteous Synergy", we've gotten a couple of those (both of those albums are even better than I thought originally, might have to go back in there). After a fairly long and definitely successful year, veteran deejay and reigning Dancehall Queen, Spice, has FINALLY delivered her debut album and, if all turns out according to plan, in the next couple of months or so we'll get albums from both Pressure Busspipe, and, AMAZINGLY, Bounty Killer. That's a pretty good year for the one or two of us who still pay attention to Reggae albums and you're still able to match them with productions from the likes of Etana, Turbulence, Ginjah, Mr. Williamz, Jah Bouks, Sean Paul, Mr. Williamz, Takana Zion and a whole heap of others from the first seven months of what is turning out to be a more than respectable year of releases. Still, if there would definitely be something which could come as something of a 'sweetener' and just place a very nice bow on things and, for me, well I would just be absolutely delighted if we could get... oh I don't know, maybe a REALLY GOOD album from Sizzla Kalonji. I mean, that would be nice. I've always maintained that my single favourite artist, when everyone is at the pinnacle of their abilities, is Sizzla Kalonji. He has no equal in my ears. The man has made music which has changed and improved my entire life and, all these years later I still give him full credit for that. That being said, however, when you are as radically ["WI haffi radical, fi deal wid unuh everywhere"] ["You tell me how good Mr. So & So is. No gimme dat - Mr. So is all wicked"] active as Kalonji  has been over the years, you basically create hills and valleys when it comes to releases and, well, I could really use a "hill" if anyone could deal with that. PLEASE!

Yep. Sizzla on a high would be nice. While it has been a ridiculous seven and a half years since the last time I took a reviewer's eye to a Sizzla album (it used to be twice or thrice a year), he has remained active and I have been paying attention. That set, "Born A King", was, in retrospect, kind of fantastic. It was maybe a bit underrated but listening back to it now, it has aged quite well with the conquerors on that album ranking highly for any of his projects at the time. Since then, as is his style, Kalonji has been all over the place. Perhaps his most noteworthy release (in terms of attention garnered) would have been 2016's "876" which was actually a pretty good release (I remember seeing the cover for "876" and having a bad vibe about it for some reason. It turned out much better than I thought it would be). My own personal favourite in recent times, however, would definitely be the Breadback helmed "Victory" from just a couple of years back. "Victory" was a damn powerhouse and, in my opinion, a SIGNIFICANT release in a career brimming with such output (and I may crack open the vault later this year in order to slap a review on it) (that would be fun). Following "Victory" Kalonji has entered the latest strain of his career which has seen him taking more of a direct control of his music and, specifically, his albums. His last two, "Black Man Rule Africa" also from 2019 and "Million Times" from just last year have come via his own Kalonji Music Production imprint. The former was an extremely varied and Hip-Hop heavy vibe and I've never been the biggest of Hip-Hop fans, but it did have its moments (most notably the title track) . "Million Times" was something different entirely. It very much carried (proudly) the 'concept album' title, as Kalonji would, essentially, create his own album full of love songs and that was just about it (and he had done a similar thing a few years prior with "I'm Yours", which did have one or two change ups). Just prior to both of those, he had also pushed out "Acoustic Sounds" on the label as well (I remember that album not being what I was hoping, which would have been just CLASSIC Sizzla songs redone acoustically, which is the class of Kalonji Music Production to date, in my opinion. But you see, what I'm looking for is a more straight-forward, SOLID, Sizzla Kalonji album. Could you maybe do one of those for me? Yes or no?

"Acoustic Sounds" [2018] & "Black Man Rule Africa" [2019]

MAYBE? Damn. Sizzla follow's his recent course and delivers his third album in as many years via Kalonji Music Production, the all kinds of curious "On A High". I call it "curious" because if you've followed the recent trajectory of the materialization (look at all of those big, beautiful words) of this album, what you've noticed is that it has seemingly grown in stature. What I mean is that, for the most part, because Sizzla has achieved a certain level of esteem and notoriety, pretty much anything he does is going to receive a particular level of attention from the masses, but "On A High" has gone from the next album from Sizzla Kalonji to a fairly well anticipated release, in general. And, like I said, I've been paying attention. And because I was just in the mood and I really wanted it, I've grown really high on the forthcoming album. I've had a pretty good feeling about it for a few weeks and, just in keeping an eye on it, again, the reaction has been fairly positive and I've been damn eager to see how it all turned out. With Sizzla, things are kind of different, at least for me. If you take someone else as overly-prolific, such as a Vaughn Benjamin or even just someone who has had many albums, like Turbulence, I don't know if I go into such a detail. But for Sizzla, whenever he has a new album I immediately begin to not only think of how good it may be but on what level can I place it. There's the top and unassailable level of classics and it is so rare that he's had an album in subsequent years that will reach those levels (or anyone else, for that matter) that I hardly even think about an album being THAT good (the last one that I thought may've had a shot was probably the much celebrated "The Messiah" album from 2013 and the actual last one to reach those levels undeniably, for me, would have been "I Space", way back in 2007). And after that I begin temper and 'quantify' (might not be the best word there) my expectations to the point where, even if I'm anticipated a BAD album, I want to know what type of bad it is because he's had so many albums that you can even register the lower level ones. But ever since "On A High" popped up on my radars I've had in my mind that what I was expecting was a very solid release and one which, though it may not prove to ever be a classic, would at least fulfill its title and find the artist in a fine form. Does it do that? Let's find out.

"Million Times" [2020]

Years ago I can remember when Sizzla was always the youngest of a certain lot. You had artists like Capleton, Luciano, Anthony B and others and he was the youngest of the lot (he's only a couple of weeks younger than Anthony B) (and you had artists who came up at a similar time, or even after, like Jah Mason and Lutan Fyah and he's even younger than they are) (he's also younger than Vybz Kartel) until the likes of Turbulence arrived. You fast forward all of these years later and Sizzla is forty-five years old (which means I'm.....), he has a son making music (who is damn gifted) and we've all gotten old as hell. Musically speaking, I can say that I do hear a difference in his output. It's more experimental. It is less straight-forward and has become far less predictable as he's aged. I'm old (as hell) and when it comes to Sizzla's music, I do honestly prefer it more 'pedestrian' (because he is wholly masterful at it), but to his credit, he has worked wonders with a variety of different approaches. And the path he takes to opening his brand new album, "On A High", is a very colourful one. 'Days of My Life' is kind of an R&B vibed love song which probably would have found a fitting home on the aforementioned "Million Times" album. Here, I wouldn't be surprised if the reaction was quite positive, but it does not rank amongst my personal favourites. The next tune in, 'How Long', was familiar to my ears and it took quite awhile to figure out exactly where I knew it (it actually did it, info came courtesy of my good friend, Google) (biggup Google every time) and when I saw something about it, I knew exactly why I struggled to recall it. 'How Long' is about a decade old and I'm actually quite surprised that it made its way onto this album, but I am not complaining at all.

This one actually strikes me as being kind of spontaneous and organic (and I mean that in a good way) and the chorus of 'How Long' is nearly golden. It isn't his best (it isn't close), but by the time I heard this one, I was just beginning to think and hope that maybe Sizzla was really beginning to heat up. The Hip-Hoppish 'Thank U Jah' isn't at all the inferno that I was looking forward to, but it isn't a bad song. I would call it more of a 'modern praising' tune. From its sound and even from the way it is written, Sizzla reminds us all that it is still most important to give thanks in 2021. And just to wrap up the first third of "ON A High" is its first single, 'Crown On Your Head'. This is another more musically versatile piece, but in this case, 'Crown On Your Head', despite its brevity, shines lyrically. It's really just about treating yourself better and not doing negative things and keeping around negative individuals. It is pretty catchy as well so not a shocking choice for a single and, from what I've noticed, the early reaction has been quite positive and it should be.

If the opening lot of tracks weren't any indication (and they were), "On A High" never actually butterflies (I just turned 'butterfly' into a verb meaning to develop... like a butterfly emerging from a.... cocoon.... you get it) into this full Roots Reggae album that I was so looking forward to, but that's fine. It does still serve up more than a few memorable moments for one reason or another and Reggae fans you like You and I do not walk away completely starved. One of the most memorable, for me, is definitely the.... unusual 'Puff'. When I saw the title here, I had an idea of what to expect and I was somewhat correct, but maybe not actually. Yes, 'Puff' is a ganja tune. If you're interested in reading this much of a review on an album like this, you've likely heard dozens, if not hundreds, of them by now. HOWEVER, I have not heard too many like this one. 

"I've gotta puff on some herbs and settle my nerves
After all that's going on all over the world

People are dying, children crying
What the heck's going on?
People in turmoil and a business spoil
And they haven't done a damn thing wrong"

'Puff' is a hybrid ganja tune/social commentary with Sizzla saying that we need the herbs to cope with all of the terrible things going on in the world. If you just listen to it, sans chorus, it's just talking about the state of things in the world, but he very cleverly, ties it all together at the chorus which gives 'Puff' this very cool kind of 'thinking out loud' (biggup Ambush), type of vibes. A very interesting song. Check the sole credited combination (more on that in a second) from "On A High" which features Kalonji teaming up with Mink Jo for 'Better Be Careful'. I'm pretty sue that I've never mentioned her name on these pages as she has largely emerged during our hiatus, but Mink Jo is very talented and I was quite happy to see her name attached to this release. As for the actual song, I don't know what to call 'Better Be Careful', exactly. I hear a cool and SMOKY horn in there somewhere. There's Hi-Hop, maybe some Blues and just a very nice and refreshing listen. Lyrically, 'Better Be Careful' is precisely what you think it is, but the journey of how it all plays out is well worth tuning in. This would also be a nice place to mention the slightly similar sounding 'Get My Love'. This one also combines elements of Blues and Jazz with other sounds. 'Get My Love' isn't a tune I would normally enjoy, it's uneven and kind of strange but it has some difficult to explain quality about it which makes it so damn interesting and I'm fully expecting the masses to well enjoy that song. Coming immediately after 'Better Be Careful' is the slightly stronger 'Nutten Good To Say'. Again, the vibes of this one are all over the place (I THINK you could even call it maybe Soft Rock to a degree), but the main attraction are the lyrics. I completely agree with the sentiment behind it: Be aware of people who can seemingly ONLY talk shit about you when you make a mistake but have nothing good to say when you do well. It is a horrible way to treat people and, in my opinion, a rather large sign of personal misery (you cannot be happy with yourself and trash everyone constantly).

"You woulda out help some people, when dem inna storm
Now dem switch pon you, betta you low dem, mek dem gwan"

I'll also go back and throw 'System' into this group of different sounds to be found throughout "On A High" but it may belong more appropriately in the final group which I am going to mention next. Though it does sound very unusual, the very first thing that I thought about when I heard 'System' was its quality. It is very good (you know its time to take a break when it takes you three attempts to type the word "very", I'll see you later) and it is actually an uncredited combination (on the retail version of the album, you're unlikely as hell to find this mentioned), featuring rapper Gingerbread Mane. The two have worked together previously and have, obviously, constructed a bit of musical chemistry. As I've said, I'm not a Hip-Hop fan at all, but Gingerbread Mane's presence only helps the song that turns out to be a somewhat somber, but stinging look at the world. 

The absolute class of "On A High" (which does include 'How Long') does feature another kind of strange sounding tune, but 'Business' is FUN! It is a joy to listen to (whatever it is, exactly) and manages to make a significant impact despite checking in at just over two and a half minutes in length. Here, the artist tries to light a fire under us all and tells us to get into action and make things happen because, no matter how long you wait and who you wait on, you will still have responsibilities and things that must be done for you and yours. The bouncing closer, 'Lady I Love U', would have probably been the best song on "Million Times where it would have found a comfortable spot (I think my favourite song on that album, as it was, was probably 'Without You') and it ranks highly in this lot as well. When I first heard it, I started singing 'Stop This Train' by Pressure & Lutan Fyah ("The Sound", big album. New Pressure at the end of the month, I believe) - it is not THAT good, but it will well give you idea of the vibes of 'Lady I Love U'. And lastly, probably the single best thing I hear on the whole of "On A High" is the title track. This one made me smile from the second I heard it and what it progressed into kept me grinning throughout. It is about as close to a vintage Kalonji that the album named after it delivers and, at least at points (I particularly like the chanting chorus which you will find yourself singing along with), has such a SWEET vibes. The composition is another ganja tune, this one a bit more direct than 'Puff' and beautiful to my ears. 

Overall, what do I say about "On A High". First of all, if you're like me and you came looking for a strong stereotypical Roots Reggae album, then your wait, like mine, will continue (have you heard "Victory"??? It's well worth looking up if you haven't) on to the next one. However, just judging this album on its own merits.... it isn't bad. You're certain to find greater fans of it than I will turn out to be, but let's just look at it for a moment (what the hell did I just spend all of that ^ time doing???). I can understand the attention given to it and the early praise that "On A High" has received. Most fans aren't like me (and probably You) and if you are a fan who enjoys Sizzla on a more diverse and varied type of set, you're likely to enjoy this album. To my ears it does score a bt higher than "Black Man Rule Africa" and "Million Times", thus slotting very comfortably behind "Acoustic Sounds" as the best albums from Kalonji Music Production thus far. I was very happy to read that Kalonji had entered into some type of distribution agreement with giant Def Jam Records (and that probably has a bit to do with some of the attention "On A High" has garnered) and I would expect that deal to be worked to the fullest (I wouldn't be surprised if he came back this year or early 2022 with another project). Also, going forward, with him having a full control like this, it will be well interesting to see exactly what type of musical direction Sizzla goes in. It is virtually impossible to be consistent with this type of activity (we're all human and EXTREMELY prone to errors), but I've come to a place where I see his music as, ultimately, leading up to some giant moment. After "On A High", I think Sizzla is warming up and that next all-conquering moment isn't very far off - on his own terms.

Rated: 3/5
Kalonji Music Production

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