Zagga Zow!


There are no guest rappers on Beenie Man’s new album. I repeat: no rappers on Beenie’s album. In the infamous words of dancehall fan Lil Jon, “Whaat?!” Couldn’t Virgin dredge up just one bottom-of-the-barrel rap star—you know, for that radio-friendly crossover single?

Odder than this omission is the reason for it: Beenie is of the peculiar opinion that Jamaican music doesn’t need to pimp hip-hop in order to sell records—that dancehall, a genre in and of itself, can (gasp!) stand alone. You’ve seen the evidence, from Sean Paul: Before becoming the jerk-flavored side dish to Beyoncé and 50 Cent and Tony Touch, he hit big using only a smooth patois flow.

Beenie Man knows a thing or two about hitting big. He was “the next Sean Paul” back when it wasn’t “the next Sean Paul,” anyway, but “the next Shabba Ranks.” Beenie’s 1998 hit “Who Am I?” landed a Jamaican artist (who’d gone from pint-size child star to quart-size adult superstar, who learned to DJ shortly after he learned to talk) on MTV. He spent years bobbing in and out of the mainstream, getting a crash course in the complex dynamics of musical crossover—dancehall’s equivalent to hip-hop’s “keep it real”: Both involve toeing the fine line between selling and selling out.

Back to Basics is Beenie’s mea culpa for his last two albums—which obliterated that fine line. The final straw, for hardcore dancehall fans, was ’02’s “Feel It Boy,” Beenie’s superpop duet with Janet Jackson. Where, fans lamented, was the old-school Beenie, the one who wanted “a girl with the wickedest slam”—not the wickedest abs? Mercifully, he’s on Back to Basics, a true comeback album that starts with a comeback single. “Dude” is the funnest duet to hit pop radio in years. Attribute that partly to Dave Kelly’s playful “Fiesta” riddim, partly to Miss Thing’s cavalier, nasal-toned homage to “a dude who will tie me to the fan.” But attribute it mostly to Beenie. Only a master of comic delivery could make macho braggadocio so likable. When he describes a girl who wants “a real man; she don’t want a nerd,” one who’s looking for “rude bwoy loving with a little romance,” we know Beenie’s the man for the job.

He spends the album convincing us. Variety is of no priority here; Back to Basics is seduction, straight up. If you, lady listener, don’t come away wanting to bed Beenie, the album has failed. Who wouldn’t want to sleep with an artist known as “the doctor”? For details, consult track four—”Dr. Know,” another spirited ride on the “Fiesta” riddim—or track five, backed by a marching-band beat and advertising Beenie as a “Grindacologist.” He chats ceaselessly, seamlessly about the power of “Mr. Johnny,” his beloved “lead pipe”—and even the iciest princess can’t help cracking a smile. It’s Beenie’s foolproof tactic: Make a woman laugh and she’s yours for life.

So it goes in music: Beenie is dancehall’s king because he’s a brilliant theatrical comedian—the sort you’d find in Jamaican revues or classic British slapstick. Drum-heavy, pared-down riddims behind the thudding “King of the Dancehall,” the beseeching “Get on Bad” and the un-FCC-friendly “P**** Language” showcase what he can do with his voice. He takes it from up here to down there, as if staging conversations with himself; he delivers singsong choruses, slightly off-key; he decorates tracks with signature outbursts—”zagga zow!,” “wha!,” “Selah!”—that stand in for a laugh track. Back to Basics doesn’t always transcend the liability inherent to dancehall albums: Most songs in the genre work best not as finished singles but as 30-second snippets, meant to be sampled in a selector’s riddim-based set. There are plodding tracks here, but also standout collaborations: “D-O or G-O,” in which underrated Jamaican singer Ghost hits higher notes than Menudo ever could, and the choir-backed gospel track “If a Neva God,” which turns Beenie from skirt chaser to God praiser—and leaves us offering our own hosannas: To dancehall, undiluted!

Beenie Man plays the Carifest at Coney Island August 1.