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Maybe, just maybe you weren't exactly paying attention the past dozen or so times that it happened; but if you haven't noticed there's something absolutely STRANGE going on in the Far East. Reggae and dancehall artist (and apparently soca artists soon) are running to Japan to release full blown official albums which fly so LOW beneath the radar you have to downright insane connections or researches just to keep up. And its no longer just Da'Ville and Voicemail going over every other year or so to release an album between releases for VP Records (which would be excusable, even though all of Da'Ville's efforts, regardless of country of origin have been stellar thus far), but they've told their `friends' about the apparently reggae STARVED Japanese market and labels over there which seemingly have very little trouble in getting music out to the masses at all. Just who has taken advantage of pushing their vibes in the Far East? Where do I begin? Well to the HARDCORE dancehall heads waiting for the day when you'll see debut albums from the likes of Chino or Delly Ranks; Chino and Delly Ranks, to answer the question. Both dropped their debut albums in Japan within the last year with Chino reaching with Unstoppable (which was very stoppable) and Delly Ranks with the pedestrian Break Free. Who else? Between his debut, Step Out and his most recent effort, Loaded, Busy Signal struck out in Japan with his REAL sophomore project, Holding Firm for Victor Entertainment; also fittingly, around the same time (late 2007/early 2008) was the real debut album for Busy's `classmate' Aidonia who had the album Then & Now, released on his behalf from his estranged producer/mentor Cordell `Scatta' Burrell. Also! Should you find yourself completely unable to get the tune Love Is Wicked by diva dancehall duo Brick & Lace, out of your head, you can find their debut album of the same name on CD racks in Japan and their peers of the feminine nature have followed them as well as Alaine (Sacrifice), Kris Keli (My World), Tami Chynn (Out Of Many. . .One) and even Ce'cile (Bad Gyal) have all had their official debuts come via the Japanese route (and all of them, actually, are pretty decent projects as well). And, less you think its only a new age type of thing for unknown and up and coming artists to get their names out starting from the East before coming back home, take the case of Spragga Benz whose `fifth' album this year, Prototype, was actually his sixth as he released Live Good in Japan on Victor; the even more veteran than Spragga, Burro Banton also returned recently with the Massive B produced Badda Dan Dem in Japan, and one of the first such releases, to my knowledge, was a few years back when mad dancehall group Ward 21 released their (TERRIBLE) third album, King Of The World exclusively in Japan as well. I could go on and on with names like Sadiki, Terry Linen and others who have all taken to Japan and if you are a dancehall fan and never had a reason to before, you now have a reason to go with them.
Meet the reason. You could make the case that there has NEVER been a more polarizing figure in all of reggae music's history than that of Vybz Kartel. I know youths half my age who can quote each and every lyric from each and every tune they ever heard from the artist and I know literal music scholars who not only refer to his arrival as the WORSE thing that ever happened to not only reggae and dancehall, but one of the worse to Jamaica as a whole as well. It is to the credit of Kartel that either side speaks of him in such (albeit opposing) substantial terms as it is that Jamaica's current favourite son, Usain Bolt recently declared the unusual looking Portmore native his favourite artist altogether as well. Why the polarization of opinions? What makes Vybz Kartel and his music unforgettable in the landscape of the music SATURATED Jamaica is the fact that whether you love him or hate him, his vibes come with an undeniable level of skill RARELY seen in dancehall, hip-hop or any other form of free-flowing/talking musical genre. His arrival at the music's highest stage, much like in the case of Beenie Man and others such as Shabba Ranking and Papa San marked, in itself, a SIGNIFICANT step up of the music, you simply had to make better music to compete with the fast talking, lyrically SCATHING wordsmith who would grow to single-handedly declare war on nearly each and every substantial dancehall artist at one point or another (even his own mentor, Bounty Killer, and Bounty's own mentor, Ninja Man). With the attraction that Kartel has had in his time at the top and all of the controversies, it is still quite remarkable that he has only had four official albums released to his credit since his debut, 2003's Up 2 Di Time. It was followed by a re-released version of itself, More Up 2 Di Time the following year, both for Greensleeves and both for Kartel's main initial producer, Don Corleone. 2004 also saw the release of his third album, Timeless, for King Jammy's and family. And in early 2006 there was his `senior' album, his most high profile release to date, JMT, also for Greensleeves, with whom he had a contract. Now! Should you have found yourself (like me) wondering and thinking that the next album would be his debut for VP Records (who bought Greensleeves in early 2008) which would have been one of the most anticipated modern dancehall albums of all time, then you, like me, were wrong. Vybz Kartel has joined the ever growing number of his peers and headed to the Orient to deliver his latest work of art, the EPIC The Teacher's Back released on JVC Japan. It's only been a few months shy of three years since JMT, but it seems more like five or six. Since that album Kartel has been involved in rather public feuds with both Bounty Killer and upstart DEMONIC singer Mavado (twice) as well as spats with Busy Signal and others (currently Bling Dawg) as well. We've also seen the emergence of Kartel's `son' Aidonia who slowly, but surely, is beginning to make his own impact much in the same fashion that Kartel did years ago with a downright LETHAL flow seemingly unmatched by ANYONE in the dancehall. However, if The Teacher's Back is any indication, the title of dancehall's reigning bad guy, which he inherited from Bounty Killer, isn't one Vybz Kartel is willing to give up without a fight.
Another special development since JMT has been the career of young Stephen `Di Genius' McGregor who draws the majority of the production duties for The Teacher's Back alongside Kartel himself for his own Adidjaheim and in his still brief career, the album proves to be not only his finest work of art to date, but also Vybz Kartel's as well (and it features quite a bit new(er) material as well). Opening things up on the PACKED The Teacher's Pack is, fittingly, the Teacher Intro which develops into a full blown tune. The tune serves as essentially the finest dancehall `trailer' for an album I've probably EVER heard. It puts on full display one of the sickest word grabbing flows the dancehall has ever seen and sets the stage for everything to follow. Downright BRILLIANT opening. The first tune here is also one of the greatest as Kartel chimes in with The Dream which pushes creativity to the brink with the most insane HARD TO BELIEVE piece of a story you've ever heard, only to be `surprised' by the end which I won't ruin for you here (fitting title to the tune isn't it). And it does so on a pace which sounds like something Aidonia would favour but 'The Teacher' dominates it EASY. Completing the opening to Vybz Kartel's The Teacher's Back is the best of the opening lot and if you wanted to call it the best effort on the entire album, I'm not arguing, the SICK Court Case. I've heard the artist tip his proverbial hand on the tune as far back as mixtapes dating November 2007, but the full blown tune is absolutely ridiculous. The tune basically outlines a fictitious case involving Kartel (then again, it may have been real given how much time he seems to spend in court these days) and is just impressive to no end! The riddim, besides Kartel has a very nice old school vibes which ascends into a LETHAL dancehall one-drop at the choruses and is just a real winner. DEFINITELY! Very impressive start to the album.
The Teacher's Back album almost flows like a story given the number of interludes between the tunes (five in full, but a couple at the end or beginning of tunes), which is an excellent idea in this case, in my opinion, kind of a concept album type of thing. This storytelling type of vibes reaches its peak for my ears between two tracks, Solomon (Skit) which features a HILARIOUS conversation between an officer (Kartel) and an artist under suspicion of having ganja (played by Earthworm, wicked underrated artist) and Solomonic Chronic, the single MADDEST tune on the entire album. Solomonic Chronic comes in almost as a dancehall version to Luciano's just unnecessarily lovely herbalist anthem Hard Herbs from the Jah Is My Navigator album. Solomonic Chronic is an herbalist anthem of BIBLICAL PROPORTIONS! Seriously, the song struck me on a highly spiritual level, not the least cause of which was the ending which brilliantly features news reporters reporting on the subject of marijuana. Solomonic Chronic is one of the single best tunes Kartel has EVER voiced. PERIOD. Check the Flop DJ skit followed by Imagine. Imagine is a tune which leads introduces several concepts, the biggest one of which is that someday reggae and dancehall and even Jamaica as a whole reach a level where it is as respected as some of the other places and our artists and people are treated as such. It kind of reminds me of Nas and Lauryn Hill's tune If I Ruled The World a bit (and wouldn't a female partner on the track have been a nice touch by McGregor). Not even one of the album's best tunes is the somewhat older Imagine, but STILL, a big tune nevertheless, lyrical insanity! Perhaps the second greatest creation on The Teacher's says comes in between Teacher Says skit and the tune The Teacher Says. This tune is like a medley of all the girls tunes he has scored with over the years and in the process scores another hit. Kartel used to be criticized by many (your's truly included) for not adding many facets to his game, thus, he racked up literally dozens of similar tunes, the finest of which, such as Picture This, Tek Buddy Gyal, Tic Toc and others make lyrical appearance on the hype The Teacher Says. Of course the other type of tune Kartel made his name on was the big gunman tune and there are more than enough fine examples of such here. Check both tunes, back to back, Cosanostra and Buss My Gun. Cosanostra is made and goes with the HEAVY hype flow but Buss My Gun is nearly special. It takes quite awhile to get going but Kartel eventually drops a bomb of nuclear proportions on the competition. Lastly (for the first part) I'll mention the combination of the Where Me Come From skit and the tune life Story. This tune is probably an unprecedented personal piece from Kartel as he basically goes through and details all the various struggles and good time he went through to become the artist (and even the man) he has grown to become. The tune even features very nice touches of the artist simply talking over the simple r&b styled riddim about his past and growing. The tune is definitely one The Teacher's Back finest altogether and an excellent way to end things here.
But it doesn't end things here at all.
The Teacher's Back REALLY ends with a string of far more familiar hits pushing the album's totals from eighteen to twenty-five tracks really and is just as much as showcase for Di Genius as it is Kartel. First is Broad Daylight a heavy COMPLEX gunman tune over McGregor's equally complex Day Break Riddim. Then there's Nah Go Nuh Weh, speaking of complex, check this one, which is basically a high-tech testament to Kartel's `stability' in the business. Wicked tune over McGregor's Chiney K riddim. Pay close attention to the next one, Bedroom Tsunami (aka. . . something else) as it flows over a STUNNING re-lick of the same Day Break riddim as Broad Daylight (this one complete with heavy keyboards), the flow on that one is XRATEDLY EPIC! It's Kartel, you know what to expect there, definitely one of the best of the seven. The dark What A Boy Can (Chat) comes in very heavy over the Shadow After Dark riddim, if you take a kind of a 'neutral' point of view to the tune and just realize it for the wickedly brilliant piece of creativity it is and not focus on its crazy violent nature (which it is) then you can see the POET under there somewhere (particularly approximately two minutes deep into the tune when Kartel releases a fountain of words from somewhere only he (and probably Aidonia) can relate to). MADNESS! Work Out is my least favourite of the seven definitely; the title track of McGregor's big riddim of the same name is somewhere between ADDICTIVE and ANNOYING, right now, its annoying; ask me tomorrow I'm sure you'll get a different response. And there's the downright RIDICULOUS Bruk Out, Bruk Out which is Dancehall meets Disco Fever 1970 over McGregor's 2070 riddim. This one also borders between addictive and annoying, but right now, I'm loving it! Creativity at its highest. Lastly (really this time), is probably what is probably the most popular tune on The Teacher's Back altogether, Money Fi Spend over the Bee Hive riddim. The tune is about... money, of course, but it also has a (albeit very DARK) uplifting type of vibes as well, and I always maintain that it's the type of tune which Kartel simply COULDN'T have come up with before his maturation as an artist. With all of these seven tracks, its simply something extra (they are, in fact, listen as Japan Bonus) but something we would have expected, big albums, with the big hits, definitely.
Overall, you can slide JMT right out of the way as Vybz Kartel's greatest album to date as The Teacher's Back mines absolute GOLD in it's twenty-five tracks. 2008 was a year which had so much promise on the dancehall side and definitely lived up to it on the local scene, but as far as albums, maybe not. Neither Beenie nor Bounty (or Tanya Stephens for that matter) brought their now 2009 expected next releases, Sean Paul's album also got delayed until 2009 and Elephant Man's and Busy Signal's releases didn't live up to expectations. In fact, the single best dancehall artist release album this year was PROBABLY Ce'cile's lovely Waiting, but stuff just changes now. The Teacher's Back fulfills on the promise showing the once `strange sounding' Bounty Killer disciple capable of keeping the vibes high through an entire (almost two with those tracks) and delivering AN ABSOLUTE WINNER! Unfortunately, you might have to get your passport stamped to get it or pay an arm and leg. Is it worth it? Maybe, to check the best dancehall album of 2008. Period.