Every teacher has a would-be prodigy: a student brimming with brilliance, but more enamored with spitballs than scholarship. Tortured by wasted potential, the teacher remains haunted by hope that soon, antics will yield to academics.
Vybz Kartel is the would-be prodigy of dancehall reggae. In the late ’90s he was ghostwriting for Bounty Killer; within several years his distinct voice—hyper-articulated yet so thick with Patois, it’s indecipherable to the untrained ear—graced every other riddim on Jamaican airwaves. Lyrically voracious, he’s the anti–Sean Paul: Most Kartel tracks don’t deliver slick hooks or crossover-ready choruses; they offer tongue-twisting verses that swallow the riddim altogether. In Kartel’s musical economy, words, not beats, are currency, and Kartel spends liberally.
But his third album,J.M.T.—an uneven set of hits and misses, mostly singles released since his now-classic 2003 debut, Up 2 Di Time—reveals what lofty subjects Kartel, 27, spends most liberally on: cocks and glocks. Regarding the latter he is winningly bombastic: “Dem bwoy dem have no gun/Dem bwoy dem have no rifle/Dem collapse like Twin Tower but I am the Eiffel” (“Gun Session”). On the former he alternates between atrociously unsubtle—”I neva nyam pussy,” goes one plodding chorus—and skillfully lewd: On “Rough Sex,” he wants to “make you feel more steam than rice a just cooked.” Such tracks are the musical equivalent of spitballs: rude and crude but, artfully delivered, undeniably amusing.
They turn maddening, however, in light of “Emergency”—arguably among the most compelling dancehall tracks ever released. Over the wailing “Siren” riddim, Kartel—posing “a couple question from a likkle deejay”—hurls a searing indictment of political violence at Jamaican politicians, called out by name: “Question: Kingston make no AK?/Question: How gun come inna J-A?/Question: Who run the wharf and the airport, the docks and the bay?” Such lyrics, like those of “Dutty Landlord,” an attack on Jamaican slumlords, make Kartel’s potential painfully clear: When he privileges politics over pussy, and applies his dazzling gift of gab to subjects sexier than sex, Kartel is unparalleled—dancehall’s true prodigy.