With the lion’s share of today’s reggae driven by dancehall’s digital beats, and holier-than-thou mic rockers like Sizzla courting hip-hop heads with cynical pussy shout-outs, you just know some in the “conscious” roots contingent are struggling to regain a sense of self. Not Junior Kelly. Tough Life—Kelly’s best effort since 2001’s Love So Nice (led by that title track’s rare public admission of romantic vulnerability)—proves he’s his own man, no retro-minded clone. Kelly’s a classic-hearted Rasta who keeps it raw and sometimes ferocious, but he’s not afraid to throw down for love. And Tough‘s anti-Babylonian bluster comes backed by heavy brains, maybe the heaviest, so you feel invigorated rather than intimidated or disheartened. This guy’s simply the smartest contemporary reggae songwriter this side of Tanya Stephens.
Love was that rare and precious CD—track after track of potential No.1s—and Tough measures up, starting with a title tune that out-bangs Jay-Z’s riff off Annie and moving through 16 other boomshots, including “Ease My Pain,” a Caribbean ghettoman’s foray into jazz. Kelly works over his material with a raspy, full-throated baritone that he shades to suit either correctives like “Rasta Should Be Deeper” or romantic pledges like “Receive.” And for the harder turns in any song, he calls on a gritty, steamroller chanting style. So not only does it feel, at times, as if he’s wailing with himself; with his DJ-ing, he takes on the power of three in one.
Kelly should be holding Buju Banton’s Voice of Jamaica title right now, but—here’s the kicker—few are listening. Whatever the reasons—the 2002 car accident that sidelined him for a few years, Jamaican-music-biz vagaries, his own foot-shootin’—they don’t really matter. Fact is, Kelly’s Tough puts the ravishment back in Rasta and steals the show.