I don't like soca. I never have. It's nothing personal; soca never slept with my wife or planted crack rocks in my glove compartment. I just never got into its bubbly Latin, Indian, and African-flavored beat the way that I did the relaxed roots reggae rhythm or even the more similar, yet harder-edged digital dancehall sound. If you're not from the Caribbean, chances are you feel the same way I do about soca -- if you even notice it at all.
Originating in the early '70s as a jiggy offspring of calypso, soca (soul + calypso) has made tremendous strides in mainstream recognition in the past few years, although it still operates in the shadow of the most popular Caribbean music, reggae. However, the sudden crossover appeal of dancehall reggae albums from Sean Paul, Wayne Wonder, and Elephant Man (all also released by Atlantic, which may want to consider changing its name to Caribbean) has paved the way for Kevin Lyttle to raise soca to a new level of consciousness.
One need look no further for proof of his appeal than MTV, BET, and the Billboard Hot 100 chart, where the smash single "Turn Me On" reached #4 to become the biggest thing in soca since Arrow's "Hot Hot Hot" in the early '80s. The song -- which I imagine Lyttle might be sick of singing by now -- was originally recorded in 2001 and swept through his home isle of St. Vincent and the rest of the Caribbean, took over Europe in 2003, and finally has hit it big in the US. Its success is deserved, as this insanely infectious tune truly defines the term "anthem".
For soca lovers and haters alike, Lyttle's self-titled debut album will raise some eyebrows. It's by no means a typical soca release. That is, it isn't very "soca" in sound. Kevin Lyttle is as much dancehall as it is soca, and it's as much R&B as it is dancehall. Soca purists may dismiss this fusion of sounds as too watered-down and overtly crossover, but in terms of bringing soca into mainstream awareness, this album is brilliant.
The lush production and soulful dancehall-cum-R&B blend that has buoyed "Turn Me On" is evident throughout Lyttle's debut. Tracks like "Never Wanna Make U Cry", "My Lady", "Screaming Out My Name", "Call Me", and his pairing with Mr. Easy on "Drive Me Crazy" (Easy's solo version is on VP Records' Strictly the Best 30) create a party air that transcends genre. These tunes blur the line between soca, dancehall, pop, and R&B so much so that you don't consider the genre. You just enjoy the music for what it is: a fun, freewheeling good time. Honestly, if I hadn't been told that Lyttle is a soca artist, I wouldn't have otherwise guessed so.
Like the eclectic music, Lyttle's voice -- a nasal yet soulful inflection (think Curtis Mayfield by way of the Fine Young Cannibals' Roland Gift) -- seems just as influenced by R&B as it is Caribbean music. As such, this is the perfect album for soca-phobics to explore. Even when a song that is more overtly soca -- such as the sweet, airy dedication "My Love" -- comes on, you feel much more prepared and in tune with the sound.
Granted, Kevin Lyttle will be too poppy for some listeners. Those who favor the hardcore dancehall reggae sound of Elephant Man or a more cultural roots reggae statement (à la Bob Marley) should look elsewhere. This is an unabashedly shallow party album designed to cross over, but it does its job well. It's the audio equivalent of a summer popcorn movie: loud, flamboyant, superficial, and yet a crowd-pleaser.
So maybe I'm still not a soca fan, but if Lyttle continues on to craft a new genre of so-hip-pop-dance-reg-ca music, count me as its first fan.