Dancehall reggae tends to get a bad rap. The debates over the content of Buju Banton’s tunes a decade ago derailed the genre’s first attempt to infiltrate the mainstream. White America was stunned to hear snatches of unapologetic homophobia; eventually it came to realize that such sentiments are endemic to the genre, and to Jamaica’s testosterone-fueled male culture.
If Bob Marley had never established reggae as a viable form of pop music, and if patois-spitting Jamaican immigrants weren’t such a community force in various cities up and down the East Coast, then reggae’s more sonically virulent strain, dancehall, would still be relegated to the world-music section of record stores, alongside calypso and soca. But a decade ago dancehall stars like Shabba Ranks and Super Cat began to nose their way into American pop charts, typically with tame versions of the songs that had made them huge back on the island. Shaggy, who was in the Persian Gulf when "Boombastic" (from the 1995 Virgin album of the same name) broke through, became the biggest pop star of dancehall’s first American wave. And hip-hop began a process of sonic melding with dancehall, as seen in the work of artists like Smif ’n’ Wessun. This miscegenation never acquired much critical mass, however, and it took almost 10 years for dancehall to eke its way back into the mainstream. Again it was the unlikely Shaggy who led the way. Legendary MC Bounty Killer guested with No Doubt on "Hey Baby" last year, but it was a small step compared with the multi-platinum success that Shaggy achieved on 2000’s Hotshot (Virgin).
Here’s the rub, though. Without Ricardo "Rik Rok" Ducent singing the sugary sweet hooks, Shaggy’s two hit singles from Hotshot, "It Wasn’t Me" and "Angel," are just collections of loosely agglomerated grumbles. Shaggy’s not a particularly compelling vocalist, in either tone or content (for those who can sift through the patois to grasp it). Yet the formula was simple: accessible hooks + name-brand recognition + healthy dash of kismet = megapophit.
Enter Beenie Man. He turned up as a blip on the pop radar in 2000 with Art and Life (Virgin), where he partnered with impish diva Mya and superproducers the Neptunes (just before the peak of their career) on "Girls Dem Sugar," a saucy, unpretentiously fun romp of the sexes. Beenie had been recording for years, but that taste of the limelight remains enticing. Tropical Storm, his second album for Virgin, smacks of ill-advised attempts at market positioning. It’s a violent move away from his core dancehall audience and an another uncertain step toward the pop mainstream he teased on Art and Life. The lead single, "Feel It," features Beenie’s labelmate Janet Jackson in a lo-fi and muted capacity. Her vocals do define the track, as does the familiar digital skronk of the Neptunes. But where’s Beenie? Somewhere in there, but not trying hard enough to stamp the song as his own. The same is true of "Party Hard," a listless Dave Kelly production on which Beenie invites rookie singer J to upstage him by playing Rik Rok to his Shaggy.
Tropical Storm is not without its assets. "Yagga Yo" and "Bad Girl" may well be among the dance singles of the year. The former is a frantic, edgy, spectacular collaboration with Megaman from London’s So Solid Crew. Over on that side of the pond, So Solid are like the Wu-Tang of two-step garage. Moreover, black London is made up mostly of Jamaican immigrants and their families, folks who have dancehall in their blood, even if they parse it differently. That common DNA is what makes this meeting of the mouths work. And "Yagga Yo" is one of the few moments on Tropical Storm in which Beenie Man allows himself to get unhinged. Despite all the added gloss, he’s raw by nature. When he lets it fly here, he’s unstoppable, as he is on the certifiable club anthem-to-be "Bad Girl." Produced by the Neptunes in propulsive, slightly amelodic fashion, this one’s a raging bull of a song, with Beenie toasting the fairer sex with shotgun intensity. He hits almost as high with "Bossman," a straight-from-yard match-up with Lady Saw and Sean Paul.
But dancehall becomes mainstream as well as subversive when the undeniability of the riddim covers for whatever nastiness may be lurking in the lyrics — think of the oral-sex conversations around Mr. Vegas’s "Heads High," an affirmative-action urban-radio hit two years ago. With his position and his credibility, Beenie could find a way to smile at his new audience while winking at his old one. On Tropical Storm he wastes this chance, and that’s worse than a carload of O-Towns.