Tanya Stephens’ last album, 2004’s Gangsta Blues, won her a lot of fans all around the world, and deservedly so; not only did it have beautiful melodies and hot reggae beats, but it also showcased Stephens’ intelligent and humorous lyrical approach. She sang like a nasal Jamaican avenging angel, whether chastising other artists for turning their backs on reggae’s noble past or bragging about taking away other women’s men. While she didn’t really make much of a splash in terms of mass recognition in the U.S., she became a favorite of hardcore reggae fanatics and discerning critics everywhere.
So it is no understatement to say that a lot was riding on her followup, especially when it was announced that the title was Rebelution. And it is my happy duty to report that she’s knocked it out of the park. This album isn’t just great, it’s heroically great.
To back that up, let’s talk about the big lead single, “These Streets”. It is disorienting at first; her lyrical flow on the verses is all sing-song dancehall, but the song rides quietly on an acoustic folk-guitar riff, and also features motifs from doo-wop (the beautiful backup vocals) and classic reggae (the wistful electric guitar lines). The song’s theme is how our narrator feels neglected by her high-living thug boyfriend; its conceit is how she (lustily) compares his regular activities to what he should be doing with her: “Why you can’t stay up on me like the corner? / And keep your lips on me like your marijuana?” The sweetly-sung chorus is immensely sad: “These streets don’t love you like I do.” It’s devastating to realize, at the end of the song, that the boyfriend has been busted by the feds, and may in fact have been busted before the song even started. The more I think about this song the more I get lost in its depths and its strangeness and its beauty.
But it is a strong argument for Rebelution that “These Streets” does not swamp the rest of the record. Stephens has a lot of targets, and she goes after them relentlessly here. Organized religion gets it in the neck on “Keep Looking Up”, as Stephens says the kingdom is all around us instead of in some cabin in the sky. She wrecks dancehall’s homophobia on “Do You Still Care” without even trying, and probably deserves a medal for being a reggae performer who dares to speak out about this topic. Casual alcoholic hookups get jacked-up in the spoken-word piece “Saturday Morning”; the latter is followed, in typical ambiguous Tanya fashion, by a song called “Cherry Brandy”, which celebrates binge drinking when one is sad about a breakup. One thinks maybe we’re supposed to see through this “logic”, but, y’know, maybe not. She’s a complicated rebel.
Stephens also trashes sexism on a number of tracks, but her vision is wide enough to play casual seductress (“To the Rescue”, in which she justifies a swoop for someone else’s guy by explaining patiently all the other woman’s faults) and heartbreak victim (“Damn You”, a very bitter variation on “Crying in the Chapel”). She also gets more heavily political than she’s ever done before on a song called “Rosa.” Not only does she go after the black bourgeousie for settling for creature comforts instead of changing the system, but she has a few choice words for one of the biggest players in the current U.S. administration: “So we’ve come a long way from picking cotton / Man I’d never thought I’d live to see the day when Bush picked Rice / But if all you’ve become is another house nigger baby / Tell me was it worth all the sacrifice?” Ouch. Woman draws blood.
But she doesn’t just draw blood, and that is the triumph here; it’s a protest album with many non-protest songs, or songs that can be enjoyed even when you’re not feeling all let’s-go-change-the-world-ish. “To the Limit” is just a fun throwback song about living fully, complete with old-school guitar sounds and a ska trombone. And “Put It on Me” is just a fun dancehall song about being horny, where she says that her chosen guy slams her heart “like a Rowdy Roddy Piper”. Come on, that’s genius and you know it.
She’s got heart, she’s got brains, she’s got soul, she’s got a working human body with all its needs and contradictions intact… and she knows how to sing about all of these things with a sense of humor and a righteous passion for justice. Sounds like Album of the Year to me.