[VP Records; 05/08/2012]
A Rare Reggae Star With A Rarer Set of Pipes
This is one of the most unconventional reggae albums I’ve heard in awhile, and whether or not you like Romain Virgo’s sophomore LP The System largely depends on your level of purism, or your acceptance Romain as a new reggae elite in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean.
The most immediately striking thing about The System is Romain Virgo’s voice, which is consistently, without pause, front-and-center throughout the entire album. It lingers in a higher range than most reggae artists, who tend to bubble in baritone. And while reverb tinges his melodies from time to time, his vocals remain Auto-Tuneless, raw, and tireless. It’s the voice that won Romain the Jamaican contest “Rising Stars” when he was just 17 years old, and earned him breakthrough status with his self-titled debut on the heavyweight reggae label VP Records. What’s more, he sneaks in a refined vibrato in certain tracks in They System, laying the R&B influence on thick and surprising you every time with his classic talent.
The subject matter of the songs is relatively conventional in the straight-edge reggae stylings of I-Octane and Busy Signal (the latter is featured on the song “Broken Heart”). Like many reggae artists, Romain grew up singing in a church and retained not only his impressive pipes but the values of his upbringing. The album covers hunger, poverty, violence (in the anti sense), the affirmation of life (“I know I got to go, but not today,” he sings about death in “Not Today”), his mama, and eventually, love. What’s more, the songs seem to be thematically divided, with issues taking up the first half of the album and catchy love stuff on the other, but a blend of roots, folk, and ballad pop is prevalent throughout.
There are some surprises, and a good deal of the time they misfire. Odd, sudden production choices on The System make me crave the days before overproduction entered the reggae picture, like the “wtf”-inducing Phantom of the Opera organ riff at the end of “Broken Heart” to the Glee drama on “Don’t You Remember” to the weird outer space analogue synth on “Ray of Sunshine.” But when the album hits, it hits — and inspires.