Jamaican dancehall music has always mirrored the evolution of American rap. This includes the rash of violent, hate-filled lyrics that got Tipper Gore in such a tizzy back in the early '90s when rappers like Ice-T released diatribes against police, women and assorted other objects of contempt. Dancehall stars, too, adopted the guns 'n' girls style, adding a predatory homophobia to a trend that peaked with the song "Boom Boom Bye Bye," a rant by dancehall king Buju Banton that advocated murdering "batty bwai," Jamaican slang for gays.
RAS Records, one of the top reggae labels in the United States, has always steered clear of such fare, preferring the "conscious" style of reggae popularized by Bob Marley and rooted in Rastafarianism. Three new albums just released by RAS -- Tony Rebel's Realms of Rebel, Chaka Demus & Pliers' Help Them Lord, and Angie Angel's Life -- collectively aspire to "clean up the dancehall." They blend roots reggae's social consciousness with dancehall's new-school sound into a modern, positive-thinking Jamaican music.
It's a worthy pursuit, but it isn't quite the paradigm shift it's made out to be. Dancehall artists quickly learned that the record-buying public has a limited appetite for violent excess. Soon after Banton's gay-bashing controversy, many stars -- led by Banton himself on his 1995 classic Til Shiloh -- discovered religion and cleaned up their act. In fact, like countless other musical provocateurs, violent dancehall now seems vaguely pathetic and dated. Sort of like Ice-T.
Even if the dancehall has already been cleaned up, though, cleaned-up dancehall is still worth a spin. On Realms of Rebel, Tony Rebel's fluid transitions between soulful singing and fiery toasting showcase the possibilities: The buoyant "Hypocrites" is a testament to truthfulness, "Perilous Times" a skeptical meditation on modern life delivered over a classic dancehall keyboard line, and "Queen Divine" a crooning paean to Mom. But Rebel's religious material is the best thing on Realm. "Judgement" and "Praises in the Morning" are each emblematic of what positive dancehall aims for. The album's best track, "Rasta Right Again," marries reverential lyrics with an infectious chorus -- a rarity in dancehall, which often centers on martial drum rhythms at the expense of melody.
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Veteran rhythm men Chaka Demus & Pliers take a different approach. Despite its title, much of the music on Help Them Lord is devoted to worshiping women, not deities. The duo alternates smooth lovers' rock and straightforward toasts over the intricate beats that built their reputation. A reggaed-up version of Elvis's "Don't Be Cruel" takes a page from Shaggy's successful remaking of '50s classics. "Love on the Carpet" brings '70s soul to the dancehall. And "It Hot" raises the persuasive point that girls, not guns, are what truly bring happiness. The title track is a notable departure into Rastafarianism, with a soaring refrain that harks back to an earlier period. But the rest of Help Them could use a little help; it sinks into the tuneless repetition that makes a lot of dancehall music forgettable.
The best of the three albums comes from the artist with the least experience. Angie Angel has a rich clarion of a voice that she gilds with unexpected inflections. Her unique style adds immensely to the laid-back, conscious chants on her debut, Life. Angel pays particular attention to positive women, with rapid-fire delivery on "Queen Omega," "All a Di Princess" and the title track, a rousing call-and-response duet with Judy Mowatt of the legendary I-Threes singers. But Angel doesn't quite espouse dancehall feminism: The best thing in Life is the opener, "Rastaman," which cleverly sings the praises of righteous men.
The truth about cleaner dancehall is that while it's great to listen to, it's also tough to distinguish from its ruder predecessor. The accents are so thick and the slang so foreign that even a semi-trained ear misses much of what's going on. But if that detracts slightly from the moral instruction, it definitely doesn't detract from the music.