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Kingston, Jamaica

Album Review

Kingston Story by Vybz Kartel

Vybz Kartel

Kingston Story

[Mixpak Records; 06/21/2011]

By Halley Bondy

June 21, 2011

Dancehall's reigning emperor's empire state of mind

Any review of Vybz Kartel’s new LP Kingston Story has to grapple with the strange fact of its mere existence before the music itself can be assessed. Most dancehall albums are basically collections of an artist’s hot tunes, already released as singles (used to be 45s, now mp3s) and proven on radio, club and soundclash. Recent crossover records like Diplo & Switch’s Major Lazer projects have broken that mold, incorporating dancehall vocalists into the hot eclectic mess of styles that characterize Diplo’s DJ sets.

But Kingston Story is neither your usual dancehall record nor hipster fusion. It is a full-on collaboration between Vybz and Brooklyn-based electronic producer Andy Hershey AKA Dre Skull. It is dancehall to the core–although driven by a sense of melody and a palette of glowstick-friendly synths that is recognizably Dre’s. The only track that’s seen the light of day before now is “Yuh Love” a particularly resonant ballad of bass-harmonics that was the duo’s first effort. And even that is fleshed out with a sort of classical piano interlude (which draws on the viral phenomenon of amateur pianists trading interpretations of Vybz’ Jamaican hits over Youtube.)

That simple interlude, though, provides a key to the album’s whole approach. The blueprint of Jamaican dancehall is not so much experimented with as elevated, treated as pop music of universal appeal (the production values, for one thing, are head and shoulders above most of Kartel’s Jamaican hits, if only in terms of bandwidth.) Kartel is in top lyrical form on these tracks–a testament to his in-studio chemistry with Dre. They’re also more melodic—actual song instead of singsong–and though the first single “Go Go Wine” is an ode to the strip club that sounds more like proper dancehall than the Jamaican rap Vybz leans towards these days, he generally reaches for more universal subject matter; love/f**k anthems like “Half on a Baby” even speaking of pop radio potential.

In fact, if there is any criticism to be made of Kingston Story it’s this: too much production values, not enough controversy and bulls**t for a Vybz Kartel album. Anyone who’s a Kartel fan already will know that his phenomenal success is propelled by the cloud of scandal that follows him at all times; his clashes with other Jamaican artists from Mavado to Shabba Ranks, his lyrical endorsements of oral sex, his tattoos of serial killers and chemically bleached skin. It remains to be seen whether KS will generate much buzz in this sense. But as Kartel doubtless intends Kingston Story is his rebuttal to any doubters who’ve let that cloud distract them from the prolific flow that is the real reason he is currently dancehall’s reigning emperor.

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