Enter the dancehall, with its scantily clad queens, deep caverns of bass, and rakish angles, and enter a broiling church of urges–erotic, political, spiritual–finding expression in stylish, articulate gesture. A sensual confrontation with Africanized surrealism–be it the fat-ulous mampie dem in the skintight and the barely there arousing the crowd with ceremonial gyrations or the dancer crews battling with pops and hesitations, with eel-like undulations and gesture stories. Reason enough to find me and my peoples up in spots like the Boogie-Down’s Act III, Harlem’s Karate Club, or the Dome in Brooklyn, Guinnesses in hand, barking out gunshots when a badman sound system like Killamanjaro come fi teach. I’m a reveler much in the same way my Pops was (he was patronizing gunman spots like Love People) and his Pops before him. Dancehall ain’t just music: it’s full-bodied ritual experience handed down (unlike its fragmented American cousin) in complete sentences. Which is why dancehall conforms to the very specific directives of all African ritual systems–the cultivation of the amplified, sanctified moment. I’m talking those holy ghost moments when angels visit, bodies are mounted, and the dancehall explodes. The revelers have come up with a name for such controlled abandon: bashment. And Beenie Man, the dandy of bashmentism, is also its reigning king.
Beenie is king not just ’cause he flex on any riddim ‘im feel like, but because he is, above all, a formidable strategist who campaigned for his throne. In the same way Biggie took the East, West, North, South, and Midwest aesthetics of hip-hop and made them into the sound of a united ghetto, Beenie can be equally convincing commenting about any corner of dancehall’s major trinity: girls, guns, and God.
To earn bashment’s crown, Beenie battled Bounty Killer, the onetime king. It was a clash of styles–in the tradition of Shabba and Ninjaman–pitting archetype against archetype. Bounty Killer played party general to Beenie’s carnival trickster, Ogun to Beenie’s Eshu. Bounty stated the unbounded truth in rigid, bold declarations. Beenie became a master of indirection. Instead of making declarations, he asked questions–haunting, lingering rhetoricals that could loom over a crowd like the infamous scavenger birds that roam the Jamaican sky: Tell me who shot / De yout / In the street / Laast / Niight? / Dem seh nobody know. In the end, the badman ethic Bounty espoused proved difficult to sustain, while Beenie peppered the dance with tales of the sexually self-assured. His particular specialty: portraying the bravado necessary to get into them draws. In the bashment, where the supremacy of riddim is unquestioned, Beenie’s microphone charisma comes from his understanding that rhythmic prowess is sexual prowess.
On his current LP, Many Moods of Moses, Beenie remains the dilettante, refusing to trap himself into any one thematic corner, a freedom very rarely afforded to dancehall’s masters of ceremony; those who choose to exist on the expressive, emphatic edge of a passionate and focused music must mean what they say or risk the admonition of the Jamaican massive. Lady Saw, JA’s Lil’ Kim before Lil’ Kim, represents the gloriously raw, the lewd, and the woman. Bounty Killer must stay true to the rudebwoy ethos that spawned him. Buju and Capleton keep it Rasta. But Beenie can play philosopher (“Long Road”), Rasta missionary (“Foundation”), rudie (“Badman”), or provocateur (“Have You Ever”) without serious repercussions. The one drawback: Jamaicans seem to have associated his flexibility with homosexuality, a dancehall no-no-no. On one of his more self-conscious songs, “Bad Mind Active” (a remake of Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative”), he speaks to the irony of such rumors following the author of heterosexual anthems like “Gal Dem Way.”
Many Moods is a hodgepodge of an album, slightly less cohesive than his preceding one, Maestro. But this is Beenie as strategist again: while Maestro captured something of the pace and romp of the dance, Moses displays the breadth of his musicality. At times, he can sound like an accomplished mimic playfully battling ennui. But don’t let the zigzag of his movements fool you. The genre hopping–from country to gospel to ’50s r&b to opera–is meant to reconfigure Beenie, not just dancehall conjurer now but pop conqueror.
Still, the transition from bashment to pop is not an easy road, as Super Cat, Shabba, and Buju can tell you. The master must become missionary, the conjurer must commodify. Beenie’s elasticity leaves him more prepared than any of his predecessors. Yet what he takes from the bashment, and what he seems ready to give to the world, is sketched out on cuts like “Who Am I”: uncompromised dancehall, rooted in ritual. Riddiomatic pop, not refried hip-hop.