Reggae seems mostly man’s work, unless you count harmony sweetening, which I don’t. Blame apron strings tied to Jamaica’s shaky economics, the church and Rastafari’s shared dictums on woman-as-rib decorum, and the fact that few females can pull off the macho edginess and refusal of all but penis work that underlie even lighthearted dancehall raunch. Lady Saw is a feisty exception, but bound as she is by her batty rider, I can’t imagine Saw unleashing a heartfelt “I hate you so much right now!”
I don’t have to imagine that or any other raw sentiment from Tanya Stephens. Gangsta Blues, the third CD from the diminutive but deep-voiced powerhouse, takes reggae “way back” to its creative source, as the title track promises, at the same time opening up and rocking dancehall hard with the strength of Tanya’s literate mind. Recorded in Jamaica following her three-year sentence voicing alt-rock in Sweden, Blues is all about the liberating brain flash that brought the dancehall queen back: If it’s all blues, why can’t it all be dancehall? Ain’t everyt’ing everyt’ing?
Take “Other Cheek,” an achingly personal primer on Jamaica’s social, economic, and political ills. Forgoing the easy slogans and demonizing of politicians that win knee-jerk audience calls to “bu’n fiah,” Tanya gently backs Jamaica’s P.M. into her corner with a husky, rub-a-dub-styled vocal that breathes an urgent litany of suffering. And P.J. Patterson must take pause at the vocalized pain of “Sound of My Tears”—all the more gut-twisting for the breaking toughness of Tanya’s rude-bwoy persona. She zooms in on vivid details and ratchets up the honesty level in tracks like “Can’t Breathe,” a scorned woman’s atomic bomb of rage and despair. Emotional intricacies and cathartic productions elevate the Ricky Lake plots of “Gangsta Gal,” “Little White Lie,” and “It’s a Pity” into revelatory heartache. And when it comes to poom-poom ‘n’ wood themes evoking Tanya’s ’90s naughtiness masterpieces (“Yuh Nuh Ready [Fe It Yet],” “Draw Fe Mi Finger,” and “Big Ninja Bike”), Gangsta‘s “Tek Him Back” and “Boom Wuk” speak X-rated witticisms that will wind up on rude gals’ outgoing cellie messages. Reggae connoisseur Wyclef was added to “This Is Love” at the last minute. But Tanya’s one Jamaican who doesn’t need a leg up to American r&b/rap charts. From the moment she opens her mouth, Gangsta grabs hold and won’t let go.