Bing Crosby may be dreaming of a “White Christmas,” but few places in the world celebrate the season with more passion than Jamaica, where the tropical sun shines all year. Sipping sweet-tart sorrel punch while skanking to some sweet riddims under the glow of colorful “pepper lights” — no wonder there’s such a rich tradition of reggae and dancehall songs for the holidays. If you’re looking to tun up all the way through the 12 Days of Christmas, we’ve got your soundtrack right here.
Any other year, the month of December would be an endless series of free concerts, community “treats” and all-inclusive parties day after day. Although these public gatherings are severely restricted in 2020, thankfully the island’s recording studios have found a way to keep pumping out big tunes to keep us all sane.
As we say goodbye to one of the most challenging years the world has ever seen, here’s a recap of the best songs of 2020, and a roundup of the most exciting artists to watch in 2021. Dancehall moves fast, so MSW is back with your monthly dose of the hottest new tracks bubbling on the scene. Big respect to all the artists who help us forget our troubles and dance while we look forward to a brighter future.
“Make the Ting Tense”
Don’t sleep on Sean Paul. It’s been just over 20 years since the dancehall phenomenon released his debut album, Stage One, and 17 years since he hit the No. 1 spot on the U.S. pop charts not once but twice — first with his own single, “Get Busy,” and then with a fire feature on Beyoncé’s “Baby Boy,” which earned the distinction of being her longest-reigning No. 1 single until she dropped “Irreplaceable” three years later. SP went on to repeat the feat again in 2005 with the chart-topper “Temperature,” and once more in 2016 with Sia on “Cheap Thrills.” Along the way he’s elevated respect levels for the dancehall genre worldwide and racked up eight Grammy nominations, winning Best Reggae Album for Dutty Rock in 2003.
Over the years Sean’s hairstyle has changed from cornrow braids to a Mohawk, and even now that he’s rockin’ a buzzcut, one thing remains the same: The dutty yute spits fire every time he steps in the booth. His rare gift for crafting irresistible hooks has powered guest appearances with everyone from global pop stars like Rihanna to U.K.-style joints like “Boasty” with Wiley, Idris Elba and Stefflon Don to uncut dancehall tracks like Stylo G’s “Dumpling” Remix alongside Spice.
But even as he’s accumulated an enviable discography of outernational hit collabs, Sean Paul has kept his feet firmly planted in Jamaica’s hardcore dancehall scene. “I grew up here,” he says. “I still live here. It’s a part of my culture.” Not only has he consistently dropped music aimed at his Jamaican fans, and leveraged his global profile to promote rising artists, he’s also produced some of his own riddims, dating all the way back to his debut album.
More recently he established his own label, Dutty Rock Productions, through which he’s released various artist riddim compilations like the “Gang Gang” and the “Callaloo.” His label’s latest release is called the “Swiss Cheese Riddim,” featuring tunes from Sizzla, Shaggy, Ding Dong (who inspired the riddim’s name with a lyric boasting about “Big bank, Swiss cheese”), Chi Ching Ching and Christopher Martin.
Earlier this year Spice was the face of MSW’s women’s month edition, kicking off 2020 with a blazing freestyle to send a clear message that she will be flushing away any haters down the pan. Despite the pandemic wreaking havoc on everyone’s lives, disrupting workflow, filming schedules and travel plans, the Queen of the Dancehall has kept on top in her usual fashion. We’re used to seeing her on stages all over the world and on the hit TV show Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta. But while those platforms were on pause, Grace Hamilton stayed on top of her game and surprised the world with the launch of her new clothing line, Graci Noir, making 2020 another successful year.
Her year was not without controversy, and Spice shared every step of the journey with her 3.2 million IG followers. While doing some Christmas shopping at a Wal-Mart in the U.S., Spice was questioned by employees about whether the cash she was spending might be counterfeit. “If me did white, me sad to say, she woulda expect say me coulda have so much money,” Spice said on IG. She vented some of her frustrations on a song called “I Feel a Way,” produced by dancehall star Demarco. But in true Spice fashion she turned the phrase into a social-media hashtag, and now you can purchase an “I Feel a Way” T-shirt from Graci Noir.
“How Life So Sweet”
Born and raised in the Jamaican parish of St. Thomas, Emwah Warmington was a standout student at Morant Bay High School before pursuing a career in music. Soon after leaving high school in 2015, Skilli released his first song, a tune called “Brain Parts,” and went on to build a career with EastSyde Records. During the pandemic year he has emerged as the hottest new artist in Jamaica, showing off his lyrical bravado on signature tracks like “Mr. Universe,” a blazing remix of the late Pop Smoke’s smash “Dior,” as well as hit collabs with fellow St. Thomas artists Popcaan and Jada Kingdom — not to mention his biggest musical inspiration, Vybz Kartel.
On Dec. 23, Skillibeng celebrated his 24th birthday with the release of the 35-track mixtape The Prodigy, his follow-up to last year’s nine-track Prodigy EP. Skilli sets the tone of the new tape with an opening track entitled “My Gun,” on which he destroys an ominous drill beat with an intricate stutter-step flow: “Di Glock chip up/Fi box him up/Kill man fi fun/uh ramp wid us.” The hook is a simple, unapologetic declaration: “I don’t leave my gun.”
It’s been a long road to success for the dancehall artist Romeo Nelson, who got his start in the mid-2000s as part of Aidonia’s JOP crew. At the time he was known as Deablo, and while he distinguished himself with hard-hitting streetwise lyricism, true stardom eluded him even as his mentor rose to higher heights.
One early fan was a young and still unknown artist named Koffee, who hailed from Spanish Town, a musical hotbed where both Govana and Chronixx were raised. “When him drop that, the flow really resonate with me,” Koffee told me last year. At the time she was working on the title track of what would become her Grammy-winning project Rapture, and she decided to invite her fellow Spanish Town artist to jump on a remix that gave her street cred and introduced him to new listeners worldwide. “Koffee’s definitely a force to reckon with in reggae music and Jamaican music and music on a whole,” Govana told me while Koffee was previewing Rapture at Tuff Gong Studios in Kingston. “Me glad to be a part of the whole journey from the get-go.”
At the start of 2020, Govi dropped his successful debut album, Humans and Monsters Are Not the Same, whose unusual title was inspired by his 6-year-old son. HAMANTS blew up on the strength of hit singles like “Champ.” The same month as his album he also dropped a somewhat off-the-wall track called “Convo” that consists of a 3 a.m. booty call that takes many unexpected twists and turns, revealing how tangled a love triangle can get. Govi is trying to reach a girl named Keisha, but someone named Chris answers her phone. As their convo unfolds, Chris figures out that he’s talking to one of his favorite artists, but he’s less than thrilled to learn that Govana has been sleeping with his wife.