Balancing Act

To bounce or to burn? A dancehall dilemma for Jamaica's dangerous days

What's up in Jamaica right now is the murder rate. Should the homicides continue at their current pace—over 1,180 since January—Jamaica could end the year with the highest per capita murder rate in the world. What's that got to do with Shaggy, Sean Paul, and other dancehall acts releasing albums this fall? Nothing. And that's their and dancehall's potential dilemma. Violence isn't new to Jamaica; neither is dancehall's role as escapism-cum-therapy. But when flamboyant dancer Gerald Bogle Levy— virtually a symbol of dancehall itself—was murdered in Kingston in January, a line was crossed: The sacred realm of the dance, outré sanctuary from the harsh realities of ghetto life, had been bloodied. More than ever, the conscious, one-drop reggae that began dominating the scene last year better fits the national mood. Soothing or seething, roots had enough fire to trivialize dancehall: The massive willie-bounced while Kingston burned.

Dancehall DJs, then, have been left pondering the line between fun and frivolous. They can lyrically address the violence, but they'd best mind the way they talk; corporate sponsors, campaigning to clean up the gun talk, are shopping for scapegoats. So on his respectable debut, Infiltration, Spragga Benz protégé Assassin takes tepid jabs at the system—lamenting his Gangsta City, or wondering why "If Saddam have so much bomb, dem cyaan find it"—but his most dramatic statement is his signature cry, bellowed fast and furiously: "A murder!" That says it all, even if it's meant metaphorically: À la Bounty Killer, Assassin uses an enunciated, booming baritone to pummel the riddim into submission. He does this best in "As a Man," a thrilling torrent of jabber tailor-made for Steely & Clevie's delightfully off-kilter "Sleepy Dog" riddim, and "Idiot Thing," in which Assassin curtly assails the foolish: "Man a dress up in a name brand suit, nah mind him yute—a idiot ting dat!"

Other DJs have experimented with an if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em approach. They've tried singing over one-drop riddims, with results that sometimes—Bounty Killer's "It's OK," Vybz Kartel's "Can't Move We," Elephant Man's "As Far as My Eyes Can See"—sound surprisingly sweet. Or they've joined the reggaetón revolution. "Rah Rah Remix"—off Elephant Man's Red Bull of a new album, Ova Di Wall—is a compelling Caribbean mash-up featuring Daddy Yankee and Pitbull, whose verses re-enact musical history: And dancehall begat hip-hop, and their coupling begat reggaetón.

Sean Paul’s formula ain’t broke.
photo: Anthony Mandler
Sean Paul’s formula ain’t broke.

Shaggy and Sean Paul, though, haven't much pondered their own relevance. Their new releases gaily give us more of the same: apolitical bashment music. Shaggy boasts that he's sold more records than Bob Marley; on Clothes Drop, he struts his stuff with unsurprising pomposity—and proves himself a strikingly skilled DJ. In the best tracks on this uneven album, his sixth, Shaggy's so-seductive baritone expertly wraps itself around a scintillating Tony Kelly riddim. Shaggy's big-bamboo routine has never sounded more gloriously over-the-top than in "Ready Fi Di Ride" and "Luv Me Up" (want him to make you "bite your lip and roll up your eyes"?). He drops the tempo and his Mr. Lover Lover guise twice, to get serious: "Repent" is a sober rallying cry, and "Stand Up" 's old-school charm is boosted by a 1969 Crystalites sample. But collaborations with Olivia of G-Unit, will.i.am of Black Eyed Peas, and Nicole of the Pussycat Dolls cheesily grate; generic choruses like "Let me see you get wild tonight" are an insult to vibrant verses.

Shaggy has moaned that he's been dismissed as a warm-up to Sean Paul, who's the real deal. But ironically, he has something that Paul lacks. Shaggy's boombastic routine takes the DJ out of the realm of the real and onto the realm of the concert stage—where Shaggy, merrily transforming his mic into a phallus, delivers, and Paul, visibly struggling to pull off the willie bounce, doesn't.

What Paul does pull off with The Trinity, though, is an irresistible party record on par with 2002's Dutty Rock; it's already scored the highest-ever debut and single-week sales for a reggae artist in SoundScan history. The formula ain't broke, so Paul doesn't fix it: Over some of the best riddims of the past two years—Lenky's demure "Masterpiece," Black Chiney's drum-driven "Kopa," Don Corleone's tuneful "Trifecta"—he serves up singsong choruses and a flow so impeccably rhythmic, it sounds computer generated. Speed is his friend, preventing rhythmic from turning robotic, sonorous from turning soporific. "We Be Burnin' " deliberately repeats "Gimme the Light" 's formula; brisk anthemic verses play off a thumping drumbeat, while the chorus is a catchy jingle advertising everyone's favorite herb.

Ultimately, Paul and Shaggy are exempt from contemplating their music's relevance, because they're relevant by virtue of presence alone: As crossover kings who've made a world of fans see reggae after Bob, they're walking Jamaican flags, always and ever statements of Caribbean nationalism. And that can never be trivial.

 
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