With Vybz Kartel incarcerated on charges of murder, the question remains: Without dancehall’s eccentric 21st century hero, who will carry the torch? Cluster correspondent Tyrone Palmer answers with a mix of 2012 highlights, shining a light on deejays like Popcaan, I-Octane, Tifa, and Khago as important voices in a JA life after Vybz. Check the mix and listen while you read.
When the history of post-millennial dancehall is combed over and codified, September 27, 2011 may very well end up being one of the defining days of the era. The arrest of Vybz Kartel on that day was a major blow to fans of dancehall, and for anyone who doubted it, the subsequent months without Kartel’s steady torrent of new material have reinforced just how vital a force he was. While he has released a few songs since his incarceration, his absence from the scene is deeply felt. As Vybz’s protégé Popcaan put it in a recent interview, “with no World Boss around [dancehall has] a different flavor.” Kartel commanded such attention as an artist and mass-media personality that he managed to link his success to the health and well-being of dancehall at large – he was the “dancehall hero,” after all. More than simply depriving fans of great music, September 27th may have marked the end of the Vybz Kartel era.
Epochs in dancehall history have been delineated by looking at the dominant stars of a particular time period. While any given era boasts a host of immensely talented deejays, there are always one or two that come to be the international faces of a bustling, localized scene. Shabba Ranks was undoubtedly that face in the early 90s. He was in large part responsible for the subsequent dancehall boom of the 90s, paving the way for everyone from contemporaries like Supercat, to crossover stars like Shaggy. Post Shabba; Beenie Man, Bounty Killer and Buju Banton took precedence in the mid and late 90s, with Sean Paul emerging as the international voice of dancehall from the early to mid-00s.
Though he hasn’t had the runaway crossover success of a Sean Paul or Shabba Ranks in America, there is no question that Vybz Kartel has been the prevailing dancehall artist of the past half-decade. His rivalry with Mavado and the accompanying “Gully vs. Gaza” wars made international headlines, as did his controversial embrace of skin bleaching, his reality show, and pretty much every other move he’s made over the past few years. Kartel’s on-record persona was equally as arresting. His sense of humor and his ability to tap into the zeitgeist of Jamican culture were unmatched. Practically every word he said somehow became a catchphrase or meme. 2010’s “Clarks,” his most well-known single to American audiences, is an excellent example of this – the sales of Clarks in Jamaica rose drastically after the song’s release. Vybz’s contemporaries (Busy Signal, Assassin, Aidonia, Mavado, et al) have always been consistently to release excellent music, but they have never quite had the same cultural cache as he did. With the World Boss now missing-in-action, dancehall finds itself without a figurehead.
In the months following Kartel’s arrest, Popcaan has emerged as the de facto leader of the fractured Gaza camp, and the most promising new face in dancehall. As mentioned earlier, Popcaan is Vybz Kartel’s protégé and, up until very recently, was best known for his guest appearance on “Clarks.” Though he’s been with Gaza since 2008 and has been consistently releasing good tunes, Popcaan gained international attention last summer, starting with his ubiquitous, jubilant single “Ravin’” on the Summertime Riddim. “Ravin’” is the perfect encapsulation of everything that Popcaan does well – his unique sing-jay style is on full display, as is his keen sense of melody and ear for big, sweeping pop hooks. If one wanted to pinpoint the exact moment when Popcaan began to surpass Vybz, “Ravin” is a good place to start – Vybz’s own “Summertime,” on the same riddim, pales in comparison to it. Popcaan followed “Ravin’”‘s success with a string of excellent singles, including “Party Shot (Ravin’ Pt. 2),” on the Smudge riddim, and the current Hot 97 favorite “Only Man She Want” on the Lost Angel riddim (which recently debuted at #89 on the Billboard R&B Chart).
At twenty-three years old, Popcaan represents an entirely different generation than thirty-seven-year-old Vybz Kartel or thirty-one-year-old Mavado. While Vybz Kartel has always had a very strong youth fanbase, Popcaan has the ravenous support of Jamaican youth – teenagers and early 20-somethings flock to him, as a more easily relatable figure than dancehall’s elder statesmen. Even his subject matter speaks to the youth of Jamaica in a way that older artists don’t – take, for instance, “Jeans So” on last year’s Type R riddim, where Popcaan sings “Dem a say ‘a how yuh jeans so tight?’/Dem a tell mi dem jeans yah fit me right/…Every gyal love off mi tight jeans.” The song drew criticism and scorn from older dancehall fans and artists, but form-fitting colorful jeans are a popular trend among Jamaican youth much like skinny jeans are popular among the younger generation of hip-hop fans. Furthermore, a lot of Popcaan’s appeal as an artist arises from the youthful tone of his voice. Aside from the infectious melody, part of what made “Ravin’” such a transcendent song was the ebullience of Popcaan’s delivery; he often sounds like an over-active kid, just coming off the top of his head. In an interview with the Jamaican entertainment news program Entertainment Report (ER) that aired this past August, Popcaan recognized the role his youthful sound has played in his success, stating “’nuff people think I am a juvenile, like mi a fifteen or sixteen [laughs], mi nuh know why still, maybe it’s how mi voice sound.”
Popcaan isn’t the only young artist to assert himself as one to look out for in 2012. Khago, who first broke out in 2010 with the instant-classic “Nah Sell Out” on the One Day riddim, continues to prove himself to be a major talent, delivering one of the most infectious songs of the year so far with “Peppery” on the soca-tinged J’Ouvert riddim. Much like Popcaan, Khago has an excellent sense of melody and structure, and his voicings tend to be among the standouts on every riddim on which he appears. Both I-Octane and Konshens released very strong albums (Crying for the Nation and Mental Maintenance, respectively), though their best offerings so far this year have come in the form of one-off singles. I-Octane’s “Money Me Want” on the Riva Stone riddim is a ghetto sufferation anthem for the “gyal dem and the ghetto man dem” that perfectly captures the desperation that often accompanies poverty. Octane matches the claustrophobic undercurrent of the instrumental with a searing vocal performance, resulting in what is surely one of the standout songs of the year. Konshens, who has been arguably the most consistent dancehall artist of the past year, continues his winning-streak with “Gyal A Bubble,” the biggest club/bubbling anthem of the year so far. Tifa continues to establish herself as the new dancehall queen (her single “Wife Mi Up” on the Hot Chocolate Riddim is a great example of the type of swaggering bad gyal anthem she’s perfected), though she faces stiff competition for that title from the likes of Natalie Storm, Keida, and Timberlee.
Dancehall’s veterans have had a much shakier year thus far. Mavado’s signing to DJ Khaled’s We Da Best records has so far yielded lukewarm collaborations with Ace Hood, and attempts to crossover that fall completely flat. Mavado is at his best when the production allows him to conjure up that raw, fiery energy – such as on “Clean Everyday, ”his strongest single since last winter’s “Pepper.” Resident dancehall lothario Gyptian keeps on proving that 2010’s mega-hit “Hold Yuh” was anything but a fluke, releasing numerous singles this year, most notably this year “The Gallis Story” on the Juicy Riddim and “Gyal Gimme Some”. Beenie Man and Bounty Killer continue to release solid tracks (the most interesting of which has been Bounty’s “Thine Will Be Done” on the Cool Out riddim, a gospel-inspired one-drop tune that sees Bounty at his most mature, leveled sound yet) Lady Saw sounds the most energized she’s been in ages on “Like Mi Mate” (Hot Chocolate Riddim), a massive, hilarious ladies anthem wherein Saw boasts about how liking her man’s mistress because “she give him money and him give me grands.”
International heavyweight Sean Paul has always had an impeccable sense for what works in a pop context – it’s a large part of the reason why he’s had the unparalleled crossover success he’s had. However, Paul’s latest album Tomahawk Technique, released in January, is his most unabashedly pop record to date – and by far his worst. Paul always had a pop sensibility, but was adept at expressing that through a dancehall sound. Much of Tomahawk (which boasts production from Norwegian pop kings Stargate) sounds like generic pop music with a vague island flavor (pop as dancehall, as opposed to dancehall as pop). While dancehall has always taken cues from American pop & R&B, it retained its unique sound and style. Now, many dancehall artists, in an attempt to reach American audiences, are going completely pop, leaving only the slightest hint of the dancehall sound. This tension between being true to dancehall’s roots and trying to appeal to a broader, international audience much less receptive to dancehall qua dancehall is one of the major points of contention facing the genre circa 2012.
In a recent article published in the Jamaica Observer, British reggae historian David Rodigan – an institution within the reggae community, having DJ’ed for the BBC for decades – bemoaned what he sees a loss of identity in modern dancehall and reggae. Rodigan argues that contemporary Jamaican musicians are “too busy trying to emulate … productions that they see on BET and MTV [and], consequently, they are making pop, R&B, and hip-hop… with Jamaican accents.” Rodigan’s critique of contemporary Jamaican music is problematic – painting dancehall with broad strokes, overlooking the number of different strands and currents running through it. Furthermore, in his derision of all pop influence in dancehall he ignores the fact that, as writer Erin McLeod points out in her essential recap of 2011, “dancehall is [Jamaica’s] pop music,” and has always had a complex relationship with American pop music. That said, there is a general sense among many dancehall fans and artists alike that the music is directionless and is being overrun by the pervasive, pernicious influence of hip-hop, pop & R&B production trends.
Vybz Kartel, particularly in the latter part of his career as he moved from a harder-edged sound to more melodic, R&B-influenced ‘gyal tunes,’ has been at the center of criticism like Rodigan’s. That said, Vybz created an eccentric, universally infectious personality that stayed rooted in the JA soundsystem with out losing anyone along the way. With Vybz now gone, and a dancehall audience disoriented by his absence, young up & coming deejays aren’t waiting around for the Clarks to stomp again, and neither should you.