I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the state of dancehall music. Clearly the dancehall industry is founded on 7-inch singles, a hyper-sensitivity to the charts, and memorable, pulsating riddims, which doesn’t exactly create a nurturing environment for full-length CDs. Yet, there have been a number of dancehall albums in 2000 that have risen above the repetitive nature of most dancehall full-length attempts.
Sean Paul “Stage One”
My choice as the first exceptional full-length CD in the year 2000 is a surprise from relative newcomer Sean Paul. “Stage One” [VP Records], takes all of his strong singles and compiles them all onto one album, and laces them with intermittent sketches and interludes. Hits keep coming with “Infiltrate,” “Deport Them,” “No Bligh” and many others. The skits are modeled after the hip-hop prototype, exemplified by Wyclef Jean’s “The Carnival.” There’s one interchange between Mr. Vegas and Sean Paul called “Nicky” in which they find out they’re both dating the same girl from Barbican, which transitions into the mega-hit “Haffi Get the Gal Ya (Hot Gal Today)” that they recorded together. The riddims are solid throughout using many of Tony Kelly’s riddims, including the one that made Tanto Metro and Devonte’s “Everyone Falls in Love” so popular. Addicting, catchy and musically smart, “Stage One” deserves a place as one of 2000’s best.
Beenie Man’s “Art and Life”
Next up is Beenie Man’s “Art and Life” which is Beenie’s first release on a major label, Virgin Records. Only really familiar with Beenie Man’s biggest hits such as “Romie” and “Who Am I?”, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the latest release. He seems a bit too fickle, following the conscious path on one hand, and holding strong to his ghetto roots when “reality” was the name of the game. But what makes “Art and Life” such a success is the musical diversity in which Beenie Man experiments. “Haters and Fools” on the “Bug” riddim, the album opener, is styled after the monotone, rapid lyric chanting of Bounty Killer and Lexxus. The next track, “Ola,” mixes Latin and Reggae influences and features Rock-influenced Steve Perry of the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies. Rap-derived “Love Me Now” features Redman and Wyclef Jean, and brings the singer-DJ sound to the forefront. Wyclef sings the lyrical lines while Beenie Man riffs in a dancehall style and Redman raps. R&B is also prevalent on the remix of “Girls Them Sugar,” originally “Who Am I?” which features Mya. Other highlights include a guest appearance by legendary trumpeter Arturo Sandoval on “Tumble (La Caida),” and the presence of more melodic tunes like “Some Tonight,” featuring duo Tanto Metro and Devonte, and the R&B influenced “The Best That I Got.”
Sizzla “Words of Truth”
Sizzla gets recognition in the Top 6 with his 2-CD set, “Words of Truth.” He is the only artist on this list who consistently brings his fervent spiritual message to the dancehall arena. Prolific and creative, Sizzla always has a backlog of songs ready to release. In fact, this year alone he released the full length “Bobo Ashanti” on Greensleeves, “Reggae Max” on Jetstar and “Words of Truth” on the VP label. I react favorably to most of what Sizzla puts out, and I am especially impressed with “Words of Truth” because he succeeds at presenting a melodic, lyrical line, all the while emitting his intense energy. The first disc showcases such gems as “Lift Mine Eyes,” “Think Positive” and “Praise.” The songs have the same impact and vibe as his singles “Praise Ye Jah” off of the album of the same name or “Mockries and Phrase” off of the “Good Ways” album. The second CD is recorded live at the Brixton Academy of Music in Birmingham, England. He performs hits “Praise Ye Jah,” “Black Woman and Child,” “Dem A Wonder” and more. His energy, songwriting talent and dedication to his beliefs are what propel Sizzla with force into the next century.
Wayne Wonder “Da Vibe”
“Da Vibe” by Wayne Wonder gets an honorable mention this year. Although this CD isn’t strictly dancehall (he is, after all, a singer through and through), Wonder has perfected the singer/deejay sound. All of his tunes on this album come courtesy of Dave and Tony Kelly’s riddims, which complement Wonder’s sweet, melodic sound. He comes to entertain, and that’s exactly what he does. He doesn’t pretend to relay specific political or spiritual messages, rather he creates mood by focusing on the harmonies and sounds that mesh together seamlessly. And he’s extremely good at it. This is one of the best albums the Artists Only label has released.
Buju Banton “Unchained Spirit”
Not many artists have had the consistent album success of Buju Banton. He’s released such great discs as “Til Shiloh” and my personal favorite, “Inna Heights.” His latest effort, “Unchained Spirit,” has really grown on me. “Pull It Up,” the duet with Beres Hammond, has been a hit in the dancehall for over a year now. The whole album is quite a medley. Focusing on conscious tunes, Buju brings in Gramps of Morgan Heritage Band, LMS (the younger siblings of Morgan Heritage), and Luciano for tracks two, three and five, respectively. But the album really kicks in on track eight, “Better Must Come,” which has a wicked ska beat. The next track, “Mighty Dread” is also very strong, again with a catchy ska beat. “Poor Old Man” is a slow tune featuring Stephen Marley (who sounds the most like his father of all the Marley children). “Law and Order,” with the Firehouse Crew providing backing, features an opening saxophone solo by Dean Fraser and tells a tale of a man who has to face a judge for his sentencing. Keyboardist and songwriter Stephen Marsden contributes “Guns and Bombs,” which has a very innovative keyboard line, quite uncharacteristic for Reggae. “Woman Dem Phat” is the “slackness” tune of the album. Buju sings, “Leggo mi hand, no hol mi back/ Yu nuh see how di women dem phat. Leggo mi hand, no hol mi back/Gargamel a gonna make an attack” and riffs on that theme for the song. “No More Misty Days” features the punk rock band, Rancid. Two versions of “Pull It Up” with Beres Hammond appear on the album-one is live in Miami and the other was recorded in the studio. In my opinion, the best tune of the album is the final track, “Reunion,” a duet with Wayne Wonder, which reunites the duo that produced such great hit songs as “Movie Star” and others.
Lexxus “Mr. Lex”
Lexxus. Need I say more? The man has a huge island following and “Mr. Lex” is his first full-length CD. This album’s strength lies in the feeling that you’re getting a slice of true Jamaican ghetto life. There is no consciousness surrounding Lex’s lyrics, rather his voice and tunes are driven by deep riddims and clearly articulated lyrics. Many of the singles from this album rose to the top of the Jamaican charts. The hit “Git Wit It” opens up the album with its bold chorus, “Gonna mek some money, yuh know that I am wid it, ten gal breed, you damn right I did it! Three never sure so we make sure wi bid it. Work wid it.” Other popular depictions of street life include “Ring Mi Cellie,” “Thug Love” featuring Wayne Wonder, “Call U” featuring Lady Saw, and “Nyam Mi Out.” Although there isn’t the diversity in this disc as there is with Beenie Man’s or Buju Banton’s music, the stability and loyalty to the genre is evident.
Currently there are so many strong dancehall performers and recording artists coming out of Jamaica in addition to the artists just mentioned, including Bounty Killer, Capleton, Ward 21, Zebra, Red Rat, Mr. Vegas and more. In the United States, however, it is clear that the albums that have strong musical foundations, some crossover appeal and aggressive marketing (which all six of these discs have), will rise to the top and be noticed.