“Give thanks” is a popular Jamaican phrase that’s often used instead of “thank you.” It’s a conscious saying that reminds us to be grateful for the life we’ve been blessed with and for all the people and things that make it special.
If there was ever a year to count your blessings, 2020 is it. Most of our Thanksgiving celebrations had a very different feel: The pandemic limited family get-togethers, and many of us have loved ones we will never be able to reunite with again. But if you’ve made it this far, that’s something to be very thankful for. (That attitude of gratitude makes TIDAL’s Reggae Thanksgiving playlist one worth hearing at any time of the year. And as we enter the festive season, here’s a holiday playlist inna reggae stylee.)
In that spirit of reflection and appreciation, here are the month’s best dancehall tracks — songs guaranteed to kick-start any party (socially distanced, of course) or to help you “hold a meds,” if that’s where you’re at today.
“Seen It Before”
Born in the Jamaican parish of Saint Ann — birthplace of Bob Marley and Marcus Garvey — Busy Signal earned his name by virtue of his boundless energy and creativity. Upon relocating to Kingston he moved from one hardcore neighborhood (or “garrison”) to the next — Tivoli Gardens, Papine, Spanish Town — and during a trip to the U.S. got himself mixed up with the law. But no matter how many obstacles were thrown in his path, Busy always found a way to let his brilliance outshine the darkness.
Vowing to clean up his act, he returned to Jamaica and devoted himself to music. His abundant talents were soon recognized by dancehall’s Five-Star General, Bounty Killer, who wasted no time making Busy a part of his crew, known as the Alliance. In 2005 Busy released his first hit single, called “Step Out,” which would also be the name of his debut album. Reality tunes like “Nah Go a Jail Again,” which distilled many of the lessons learned from his misadventures in the States, and “Unknown Number,” a song about why gangsters don’t answer mysterious phone calls, demonstrated that Busy had more than prodigious lyrical prowess to offer. Whether he’s singing about street life or collaborating with international pop acts like No Doubt, Busy’s songs are all based on real-life experiences without exaggeration. So when he says, “I’ve seen it all before,” believe him.
“Look at my hands,” Busy told me back in 2017, shortly after he’d returned to the U.S., having fought for his freedom and his visa. As he held out his hands to show me the scars, the emotion was palpable. “I could get plastic surgery on them if I wanted,” he said. “But no. I want to remember.”
Later that same year, Busy would release the anthem “Stay So,” which became a standout single on his 2019 album Parts of the Puzzle. His recent release “Seen It Before” carries on in a similar vein. “Some say them a run place,” he chats on the new tune. “Nuff get erased can’t replace.”
On another new tune called “Go Shot,” Busy emphasizes that “real hustlers, we never do it for the clout.” When you’ve reached the levels that the Turf President has attained in the game, clout chasing is beside the point. “Roll out,” he raps, “big fat Benz and Polo, ice pon me neck well cold though.”
The first time I met Masicka he was a hot new artist on the rise, fresh off the release of his 2014 Sikk Tape and excited to report that it had racked up 30,000 views. Determined to stay focused, he wasn’t about to let the success go to his head. “We work for it,” he told me then with a smile, speaking about all the sleepless nights. “I put in the work and the streets appreciate it, so the feeling is good.”
Six years later Masicka is reaping the benefits of all his hard work, having carved out his own distinctive sound, by turns melodic and hardcore, and attracted a loyal following in the process. The music video for his latest single, “I Wish,” has racked up more than a million views in one week. Over a plaintive guitar loop, the artist, who’s known to his fan base as the Genahsyde Boss, reflects on the choices he’s made while chasing his dream of dancehall stardom, remembering that his mother told him the money doesn’t matter as long as he makes her proud. “Mummy, can you forgive me for livin’ like this?” he asks. “Mi life ah move too fast, is like mi need fi check di speed.” Listening to the song, you can feel him trying to balance the hazards of life in the fast lane with his desire to live long enough to see his grandkids grow up.
Vybz Kartel ft. Likkle Vybz, Spragga Benz & Demarco
“Jump on the Beat (3Mix)”
When Vybz Kartel dropped his second album of 2020, Of Dons & Divas — six months after the wistful To Tanesha — the dancehall “WorlBoss” predicted that the 18-track opus would win him his first Grammy. Unfortunately the Recording Academy overlooked his epic project, further underscoring the disconnect between Grammy voters and cutting-edge dancehall. But Kartel just keeps on spitting hot fire from behind bars while his attorneys pursue an appeal for his conviction on murder charges.
His latest release is a remix (or rather, a “3Mix”) of the album’s final track, “Jump on the Beat.” Unleashing rapid-fire rhymes over an uptempo riddim, Kartel made the original an album standout. “Jump on the beat and beat it like it outta order,” he boasts on the hook. On the new version he’s joined by his son Likkle Vybz as well as Demarco and Spragga Benz. Demarco delivers typically ill melodies at a breakneck pace before Spragga steps in and rips the entire track to shreds.
Spragga’s verse is noteworthy for two reasons: First, Spragga may be one of the only artists alive who can give Kartel a run for his money lyrically. Second, he and Kartel exchanged some hard-hitting battle rhymes during the mid-2000s. The rivalry between Spragga’s Red Square camp and Kartel’s Portmore Empire made for one of the most memorable lyrical skirmishes. The two haven’t collaborated since, and they’ve had the maturity and mental focus to keep their verbal jousting from getting out of hand.
“You can’t be shy,” Stylo told me that year, explaining the secret of his success. “It’s just about having that confidence and knowing what people like.” For the past couple of years, he has had plenty of reason to feel confident, dropping bangers like “Touch Down” — a record so hot that Vybz Kartel and Nicki Minaj jumped on the remix — and “Dumpling,” which would inspire a remix featuring Sean Paul and Spice. On his latest release, “Oh Lawd,” Stylo points out that “every style weh me drop too hard,” challenging would-be rivals. “You say you bad? Dweet!”