Few dancehall records this year will sound like Busy Signal’s D.O.B., released July 13th on VP Records. With most Jamaican dancehall deejays content riding hot riddims and singles as well as relentless touring, dancehall albums are often retrospectives of an artist’s tireless yearly output, stitched together with little conceptual framework or structure. This formula may seem familiar; rap music in the US has recently functioned with a similar business plan, churning out mixtapes, rapping over Top 40 instrumentals like dancehall deejays ride riddims. Rap albums more than dancehall records have attempted work within a conceptual framework, though the use of familiar rap tropes like girls, money, and cars often result in the most commercial success for practitioners of the form.
Up until recently, the same couldn’t be truer with the breakout dancehall success stories in the US and in Jamaica. Sean Paul didn’t get to where he did by chatting about codes of Rastafari conduct or the importance of education for children, common themes in roots reggae and dancehall alike. Instead, he made club-ready singles that could be played next to the commercial success of rap and R&B. Perhaps taking cues from such crossover success stories like Sean Paul, Buju Banton, or Beenie Man — artists who were willing to recycle US pop subject matter into their music — other Jamaican dancehall performers began to follow suit. Consciousness, spiritual subjects, and proclamations for peace began to recede from dancehall lyrics and girls, gun-chat, and violence took precedence.
These tensions between reggae’s embrace of politics and morality and a spirit of transgression come to a remarkable head in Busy Signal’s latest album, most if it achieved through an unusually varied sound palette and a comprehensive tour through reggae and dancehall’s vast array of themes. Known for his association with Bounty Killer’s crew of deejays called the Alliance, gun play, girls, and gangster thematics have been central to defining their aesthetic and popularity, Busy included. On Busy Signal’s latest record, gun-chat and gang-talk in “Nuh Fraid” seems at odds with songs like “Peace Reign” and “Nuh Boy Caan Buy Wi Out”, while a diverse sound palette underscores an itch for innovation that haunts the record.
By utilizing his unique vocal dexterity to traverse a variety of musical genres, the result is a fitting compliment to Busy’s talent for hooks and vocal inflection. On “Busy Latino”, Busy Signal uses dancehall’s common double-time lyrical delivery to keep pace with a sultry salsa production, complete with slinky piano and celebratory horns. Busy sounds so at home over the rhythm, he chose a subdued reggaeton beat on “Picante”, making a convincing argument for an entire album of Latin flavors with Busy’s fast-chats.
The album’s production even makes a subtle stop at West African pop, where producer Stephen “Di Genius” McCregor creates an infectious swirl of complex percussion and sneaks an Afro-pop sample at the song’s beginning. Other successful pairings include an entirely beat-less track called “Opera” where an Auto-Tuned Busy compliments a mixture violins and cellos with a blazing fast vocal delivery and complex rhyming scheme that could pass as spoken word poetry.
Letdowns come when Busy does uninspired love songs that only seem there to fill a quotient. But apart from minor hiccups, D.O.B. is, on the whole, full of strong, risky songs that prove Busy Signal is one of Jamaica’s most visionary artists and is at his best when word, power, and sound come together to re-create what’s best about reggae’s global impact against a backdrop of global sounds.