Not an Animal

Reggae dancehall's reigning brash and bold head-chopper-offer isn't afraid to be absurd

When did hip-hop become such serious business? Rappers nowadays—moonlighting as moguls or bickering over who's the "realest"—can't seem to lighten up. But last year, Jamaica sent aid. Dancehall reggae's raw energy roused flexing and flossing hip-hoppers and made them dance again. Poster child Sean Paul took the undiluted genre platinum, tutored 50 Cent and Beyoncé in Jamaican patois, and triggered reggae's joyride on the pop charts. Why not hold Paul responsible, too, for the sudden trendiness of red, gold, and green Rastafarian armbands? (Yup, that's one on Beyoncé in her "Crazy in Love" video.)

So the time couldn't be riper for Elephant Man—whose fourth album, Good 2 Go, is just what radio ordered. If the reggae explosion of the early '90s is being rerun, then Sean Paul, slow and smooth, plays Super Cat; Elephant Man, brash and bold, plays Shabba Ranks. Like Shabba—and before that, dancehall forefather Yellowman—Elephant isn't afraid to be absurd. Nor is he pretty or pre-packaged: He has a prominent lisp and a compulsion for tossing signature slang like verbal tics ("Yep!" "Good to go!" Or, his favorite, "Shizzle!").

Elephant—known ubiquitously as the Energy God—is what dancehall is meant to be: sheer Rabelaisian extravaganza. At this year's Reggae Sumfest festival in Montego Bay, he galloped onstage in the wee hours sporting a sombrero and colossal motorcycle boots. He climbed rafters and directed manic conga lines. He led the masses in a series of outrageous dances he'd invented—some of which are mentioned in Sean Paul's "Like Glue": the "Parachute"; the "Give Them a Run"; the "Signal di Plane." A decade ago, Harvard man Henry Louis Gates famously explicated rappers 2 Live Crew as over-the-top parody whose "exuberant use of hyperbole (phantasmagoric sexual organs, for example) undermines—for anyone affluent in black cultural codes—a too-literal-minded hearing of the lyrics"; these words spring to mind as Elephant Man, star of his own carnivalesque revue, ecstatically humps a stage pole, or schools the masses in a dance called "Chop Off Your Head."

Despite the glove, Michael Jackson did not actually purchase his skeleton.
photo: Marlon Ajumu Myrie
Despite the glove, Michael Jackson did not actually purchase his skeleton.

It's tough to capture this live act on any record, let alone a dancehall one; the ultimate mix-tape genre, dancehall is built less on individual tracks than on riddims: beats (personalized by names, like the popular "Diwali") over which multiple artists record. Since the hyper-prolific Elephant Man is on almost every riddim produced, Good 2 Go guides us through the hottest ones. "Bun Fi Bun" is a manic ride on the clattering "20 Cent" riddim. The anthem-like "Jamaica"—Good 2 Go's most inspired track—lights up the ominous "Surprise" riddim. Elephant graces the acoustic "Good 2 Go" riddim with two songs, "Bun Down" and "Stop Hitch," that put even quick-tongued Busta Rhymes to shame.

Those not fluent in patois might find listening to Good 2 Go a bit like watching non-English newscasts: Every now and then, you discern a part that explains the whole. Take the album's current single and video, "Pon the River, Pon the Bank." The verses are a challenge, but the chorus clearly says something about having "never seen a dance like this." Bingo: Forget lyrical details (if American radio didn't, most dancehall tracks would be censored out of airplay) and let the joyous track simply move your hips for you.

Or play Name That Tune with the album's familiar melodies. Jamaican music has long engaged in cultural ping-pong with foreign pop: r&b shaped reggae, reggae styled hip-hop, and now hip-hop touches dancehall. Thus does Elephant Man, master of musical recycling, turn cheesy American tunes into catchy dancehall ones: "Fan Dem Off Wine" is "Eye of the Tiger," while "Signal di Plane" is Celine Dion as you've never heard her. As for "The Pain," an X-rated track featuring Kiprich, Elephant's stage sidekick—well, remember Oran "Juice" Jones?

With a few exceptions—"So Fine," featuring underrated r&b crooner Jimmy Cozier, and "Who We Are," a well-paired duet with Killah PriestGood 2 Go is (like Sean Paul's Dutty Rock) light on hip-hop crossover. Thank goodness for that: Dancehall need not prostrate itself at rap's altar. If anything, enervated rappers resting on their laurels might take a lesson—in laughter and liveliness—from the Energy God himself.

 
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