While the Sean Pauls, Shaggys, and Elephant Men of the world continue to occupy the mainstream face of dancehall — flashing their lighters ‘pon the river and banging buck naked on the bathroom floor — for a decade now, there’s been a countercurrent of more serious-minded, spiritual dancehall from artists with more in common lyrically with Bob Marley than Beenie Man.
If you look at dancehall as paralleling the split within the hip-hop community between gangsta-inclined acts like 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg and the more topical, socially conscious artists, then DJs like Capleton, Sizzla, Buju Banton, and Anthony B. could be seen as the dancehall equivalent of Kanye West or Common, plus a bit of the neo-soul revivalists’ musical throwback tendencies. (With their devout religious beliefs and teacher personas, though, they probably have more in common with early ’90s Muslim acts like Brand Nubian or Poor Righteous Teachers.)
These cultural DJs have helped bring about a revival of not only the Rasta-centric roots sentiment of the ’70s, but they’ve also infused dancehall with a healthy dose of the one-drop roots music that proved so dominant back in reggae’s “Golden Age”. With their blend of roots-spiked dancehall, they’ve managed to appeal to both sides of the reggae coin, adding modern spice and streetwise grit to the traditional-bordering-on-stale roots sound and adding depth to the often salacious and violent dancehall trend.
Anthony B. (don’t forget the period) is certainly lesser known than Buju Banton or Capleton — both of whom have had major-label releases — but he’s proved to be as resilient as any, releasing over 15 albums since his 1996 debut. And if My Hope is any indication, he’s only gotten better with age.
Anthony B.’s sound has certainly proven successful within the reggae biz, but this album finds room to freshen it up with a vibrant, live-instrument roots blast, generating what could be his strongest album to date. A large helping of the credit goes to the production talents of Spain’s German transplant Andreas “Brotherman” Christophersen and the Jamaican Al.Ta.Fa.An. collective, both of whom brought an organic roots sound to past Minor7/Flat5 releases from Turbulence and Luciano.
Seemingly inspired by the rousing music, Anthony B.’s vocals, which have been his downfall on past albums, rise to the occasion. Reggae has never been a genre that demands top-of-the-line singing quality, but even though he’s not technically a “singer”, some of Anthony B.’s early recordings begged for a Simon Cowell harangue. Over time, either his vocals have strengthened or he’s just come to realize his limitations, but thankfully he doesn’t go for the Patti Labelle notes any more. His rich baritone has settled into a comfortable range, harkening thoughts of what Peter Tosh might have sounded like if he’d been born in the dancehall era. Like many of the rootsy DJs, Anthony B.’s delivery is distinctly sing-songy — not quite singing, not quite dancehall DJ chatting, but rather what can be termed a “sing-jay” style.
Featuring a bevy of top-line veteran studio musicians, My Hope leaps with a retro live-instrument roots power that makes the more popular computerized dancehall seem all the more rigid and artificial. Only on the faux operatic “Dancehall Thing” does a digital rhythm seep through, but it stands out like gainful employment at a Phish concert. Not surprisingly, this is the least engaging track on the album and really the only one that fails to find a spark.
Less incendiary than either Capleton or Sizzla and less controversial than the sedate but trouble-strewn Buju Banton (whose anti-gay lyrics have caused concert cancellations in Europe and who has been accused of taking part in the assault of a group of gay men in Kingston, Jamaica in 2004), Anthony B. doesn’t introduce any revolutionary lyrical content here — maneuvering adeptly through social statements like the anti-war “Global Awareness”, pious statements like “Jah Alone”, ganja anthems like “More on More”, and even love songs like “Rastaman She Love” — but he covers all the requisite bases with veteran skill. Perhaps more importantly, he avoids any Buju-like foot-in-mouth moments (see also Shabba Ranks).
My Hope‘s title track opens the album with a soaring statement of faith in future generations as grandiose as “Greatest Love of All” but without the schmaltz. On “Strong Shoulder”, he injects dancehall energy into a surprisingly vulnerable dedication to a woman who’s stood by his side and kept him “warm when the night gets colder” (granted, in tropical Jamaica, that’s not so impressive a feat).
The bold Rastafarian statement “Jah Alone” exalts Jah as the only thing one really can trust nowadays: “I tried to trust my bredda and him stab me inna mi back / I tried to trust the leaders, but a bombs dem a drop / I tried to trust the police, still a crime can’t stop / I tried to trust my sister, now she put her head under.” In light of such troubled times, “Watch Over My Head” stands tall as a gorgeous prayer for protection powered by the gospel trappings of a buoyant organ and full-blooded chorus.
The sexy, saxy “Girl Look Fine” isn’t exactly a delicate poem, but coming from a dancehall DJ, it manages to be sultry without being overly lascivious, forward, or just plain creepy. “Face Off” meanwhile rails against violence and features vocals by the ever-reliable German reggae (yes, I said German reggae) superstar Gentleman. Finishing on a high note (I think a high C), “Rastaman She Love” is a fun tale of forbidden love similar in theme to Junior Byles’s ’70s classic “Curly Locks”. As the story goes, “She’s in love with a dreadlocks / Her mama don’t like that / True dem a eat up the pork chops / But the woman love me turban wrap.” Ah yes, the ladies love the turbans.
Cultural roots-cum-dancehall artists like Anthony B. may never be deemed marketable enough to gain substantial mainstream airplay (and indeed, if they continue in Buju Banton’s homophobic lyrical vein, this may prove justifiable), but they’re nonetheless producing music as electrifying as any digital party anthem the dancehall can churn out. It’s the mainstream’s loss.