The World Boss Backs Up The Big Chat
“So all my time just gone?” Vybz Kartel intones at the start of the tenth track on his thirteenth album, King of the Dancehall.
“All these years—them waste it. If me rob every watch inna the jewelry store, me can’t get back the time.” This is the closest Adidja Palmer comes to addressing the five years (and counting) that he’s spent behind bars on his new album King of the Dancehall, which debuted at No. 1 on the iTunes Reggae chart today. Then again, he hasn’t exactly wasted his time. The album, produced by TJ Records, is a powerful piece of work, displaying all aspects of Kartel’s artistry and backing up its bold titular boast. While Beenie Man, the last Jamaican superstar to claim the title of dancehall king, has expressed his doubts about Kartel snatching the crown, Bounty Killer—who had a serious falling out with his former protege—recently appeared OnStage and weighed in on the musical game of thrones, openly admitting that 1) the album title is obviously designed to provoke Beenie Man and 2) there is no denying that Kartel is this generation’s dancehall king. Review Continues After The Jump…
Vybz Kartel is an extremely divisive character to say the least—from the Gaza / Gully wars to the “Ramping Shop” and “Cake Soap” scandals not to mention those voice notes. But at a moment when Justin Bieber can sport dreadlocks and top the charts with a “tropical house” beat courtesy of Skrillex and Diplo, it feels appropriate that a ruthless lyrical genius should represent dancehall’s Ogun (warrior) and Esu (trickster) spirits by dropping lyrical bombs like Escobar from La Catedral.
The first single off King of the Dancehall was the outragesouly raw sex tune “Fever,” which is a great place to start. There’s more slackness where that came from, from “Lipstick” to humorously hardcore tracks like “Hey Adi,” a master class in spitting game to vexatious ex-lovers. There are gangster tunes like “Most Wanted” and “Enemy Zone” as well as introspective joints like “Don’t Know Someone”—which finds Kartel reflecting on the foibles of human relationships, sucking his teeth as he considers the warning signs he missed along the way. The album closer “Which Friend” is downright horrific (“Friend kill friend,” he raps in an ominous vocal tone. “Friend fuck friend, friend diss friend… smiling face make nuff man dead.”) On “Sorry Babe” he spits rapid-fire lyrics over a vintage dancehall riddim, flexing his impressive mic skills. That particular tune is strikingly similar to Busy Signal’s amazing 2014 single “Greetings (Ribbi Dibbi)” as if the World Boss was so impressed by the Turf Prez’s work that, in declaring himself this generation’s King of the Dancehall, he felt he should try and top it. (Ditto for “Every Girl” ft. Gaza Tussan and Busy’s 2015 hit “Text Message.”)
Don’t sleep on Kartel’s A&R skills—this is man who spotted Popcaan, Tommy Lee, JahVinci, Blak Ryno, and Gaza Slim as diamonds in the rough. His latest big discovery, MonCherie, shines on “Can’t Say No,” a potential worldwide smash that should remind everybody who really invented island pop or tropical house or whatever you want to call it. Considering the artist’s current situation—he’s still awaiting the appeal of his life sentence for murder—lyrics like “we fuck anywhere: Nairobi, New Mexico, and Germany…” are almost poignant. But that’s how Kartel’s diehard fans in Kingston’s ghetto garrisons love to envision the World Boss—living a big life that they themselves will never know.
The album’s emotional climax is “Open Di Door,” which flashes back to Kartel’s childhood, as he tries to console his mother while she cries in the bathroom. “Mommy why we poor and them rich?” he asks, before promising her: “When me get big me ah change it.” It’s just the sort of gut-wrenching vignette that can shed new light on even the most desperate depravity.
Acclaimed director Jay Will’s videos from KOTD form a continuous narrrative; the second installment, “Western Union,” shifts the focus from sex to money, driving home the point that the paper chase never ends. (“Anywhere you see me at any given time,” Kartel once rhymed, “mind pon me money and me money pon me mind.”) The third installment has yet to be revealed, but whichever way he chooses to go, Kartel holds his listeners spellbound. Despite the impossible odds, he moves with complete confidence, secure in the knowledge that his loyal subjects would follow him all the way to the gates of hell.