Reggae has reached the impasse blues and jazz began to idle in decades ago, torn between boring listeners with too much tradition (which once was innovation) and brazenly compromising away its identity. In roots-reggae and lover’s rock, the song structures, lyrical themes, and production styles have all stagnated. Cases in point: Hymn-maker Luciano‘s new Visions (Jet Star) and Tell It from the Heart (Al.ta.fa.an) — much like No More Heartache (VP), the latest from loverman Sanchez — offer not so much instant classics as instant oldies: rich in tone, talent, and message, but wholly unoriginal.
The same virus has infected reissues, including Moll-Selekta’s double-CD repackaging of King Tubby‘s early dub albums. The Roots of Dub (1974) and the following year’s Dub from the Roots are intricate, adventurous, and melodic; they’re also so familiar, thanks to three decades of imitations, that even through thick reverb they fail to truly resonate today.
True, rising singjay (and recent Reggae in the Park standout) Turbulence adds digital beats and versatile vocal talents to the roots package with his latest missives, The Truth (RAS) and the rosier The Future (Jet Star). Junior Kelly does the same on the warm-hearted Smile (VP). But unlike edgier Rastas like Capleton and Anthony B, these choirboys are lyrically as surprising as dust on a windowsill.
Fact is, most innovations in Jamaican music happen in the dancehall, but now that ragga is so clearly longing to merge with commercial rap, the art form has traded its world-traveling spontaneity (dancehall kicked off hip-hop’s Bollywood frenzy, remember) for marketing hype. Most recent single-riddim comps are uniformly hyperactive, oversexed, and disposable. That vented, if you’re a dancehall fan, you’re actively waiting on Vybz Kartel‘s debut (Greensleeves), and Elephant Man‘s Good to Go (VP), both overdue but allegedly out soon. Alongside blazing singles like Kartel’s “Sweet to the Belly” and the lisping pachyderm’s video smash “Pon di River,” expect buckets of killer ragga b-sides flanked by token rap collabs and dumb skits.
While you wait, snatch up the “Pon di River” twelve-inch, currently on fleeting display in the back of Berkeley’s Amoeba — the tune mashes up Elephant’s vocals with sugary electro-pop, then trumps that by slipping in Beenie Man’s dance sensation “Row Like a Boat.” Like much in reggae these days, it’s not exactly new, but it still delivers a rocking good ride.