Strictly the Best, Vol. 37 and 38

Tomorrow's reggae stars today, within Jamaica and without

In a genre as singles-driven as reggae, mixtapes rule. Compilations are the next best thing, though, so VP Records churns them out liberally: The Reggae Gold series is its annual crossover-friendly collection (translation: hip-hop remixes and liberal doses of Sean Paul), while Strictly the Best titles serve up hot tunes designed with the massive, as opposed to the masses, in mind. The latest two editions of the latter are a convenient Who's Who of reggae's fresh new talent, a crew best described as righteous—in every sense of the word.

Take Tarrus Riley, one of the best Jamaican singer/songwriters to come along in years. His signature accessory—small, round glasses that aren't tinted, and thus not a cooler-than-thou fashion statement—says it all: Specs-and-locks imply a rootsy, intellectual vibe, and that's what's oozing from his music. In a voice that borders on operatic, he seduces with humbly reverential love songs made of complete sentences: "Let me get my words right and then approach her," he croons on "She's Royal." He also sings smart anti-violence tunes like "Protect Yuh Neck," never crossing the line from righteous to self-righteous.

Speaking of toeing the line, DJ/singer Munga has no problem following a lyric like "gangstas don't play around"—from the high-voltage tune "Eathquake"—with "praise Rastafari, first place," because he's the "gangsta Ras," a whopping contradiction of a moniker that hasn't thrilled Jamaica's devout Rasta community but certainly excited the crowd at this summer's blockbuster Irie Jamboree concert, where his electrifying chat about sex and/or Selassie stole the show. That's a real feat for a studio-enhanced artist whose irresistible hit tracks—including the hip-hop–flavored, self-identifying big-up "I Come to Take My Place"—are awash in what might as well be dubbed "the T-Pain Effect."

One could write a whole dissertation about women in reggae—starting with the near lack thereof—but suffice it to say that female Mungas have been few and far between because the Madonna-whore complex reigns: Women hail sex or Selassie, but not both. Etana and Queen Ifrika, then, might change the game. Both powerful singers, both more Madonna—er, Empress—than whore, they don't overlook the body while singing about their souls. Etana's voice is heavy and rich, and she sounds sultry even as she exhorts against "hiding the truth from the youth" on "Roots." Queen Ifrika's flat voice, meanwhile, is a perfect fit to capture death's despair in "Genocide," and used to brilliant comic effect in "Below the Waist," a romp of a tune about a fighting couple whose fights usually end with his command: "Put on your thong, baby."

Jamelody sings reggae-soul, too, but he's notable not so much for his tune—"Give Thanks," standard Praise-Jah fare—as for his origin: Trinidad, where a crop of roots-reggae artists, from I Sasha to Prophet Benjamin, are rising, ready to give all the Jamaican acts above a run for their money.

 
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