While cool rasta rhythms, bouncy riffs, and catchy hooks populated rap-reggae maestro Matisyahu’s two previous albums, his third faith-laced major-label release Light might be a bit of a puzzlement to fans. It ditches, almost entirely, the signature reggae roots, and uncomfortably flirts with other genres, incorporating brash rock guitars, and flashy, bass-bumping hip-hop production.
Light is produced by David Kahne, whose repertoire includes such credits as ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, Sublime, and the Strokes, and features a host of different collaborators, including the Glitch Mob’s Ooah, reggae supermen Sly and Robbie, songwriter Trevor Hall, and acclaimed Jamaican producer Stephen McGregor to name a few. And, yes, the production value is, indeed, impressive in its scope, with songs like the beat-frenzied opener “Smash Lies”, the grimy Kanye-sounding backdrop of “Struggla”, or the anthemic pop and buzz of “We Will Walk”, but all the jittery big beat programming is so excessive that it tends to overstep Matisyahu in an attempt to vie for our attention. What’s more, most of the overtly polished pop confections on Light greatly detract from Matisyahu’s own bullish vocal, replacing it, on a number of songs, with campy AutoTune reverb.
As few and far between as they might be, Light is not without its moments of musical precision. The album’s first single, “One Day”, which sounds like a meatier version of When in Rome’s “The Promise”, finds Matisyahu calling for a unified people and world peace over tick-boom drum machines. The lively So-Cal ska foundation of “On Nature” sees the Crown Heights MC sharing vocal duties with a children’s choir, and warbling of the duality of mankind, and the prospect of unrestrained spiritual freedom. Likewise, fans will feel at home with songs “I Will Be Light” and closer “Silence”, which break away from the snares of overproduction, offering the solid introspection and breezy acoustic work that Matisyahu is known for.
It’s unfortunate, however, that only a handful of songs truly resonate with lyrical solemnity, given the predominant themes on Light are those of soul searching, struggle, and waiting upon Yahweh. Under such conditions, Light tends to suffer to some degree, and most of Matisyahu’s moralist heralding feels quite contrived and unsure of its position, or it is simply drowned out, made unrecognizable by the sheer bombast of the album’s impulsive production techniques.
Ultimately, Matisyahu’s latest plays like an experiment in reinvention rather than a fully-realized piece of musicianship, seemingly more concerned with sounding commercially viable and dancehall-ready than operating as a musically-competent catalyst for hopeful moralism.