Murda She Wrote: April's Best Reggae & Dancehall

New music from Vybz Kartel, Bounty Killer, Popcaan and more.

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Image of Vybz Kartel by Ports Bishop.

Like the song says, sometimes it snows in April. It doesn’t feel like spring yet; the temperature’s too low and the vibe isn’t much better in the fourth month of the coronavirus pandemic. We’ve lost family, friends and loved ones, including great artists and DJs, but as Vybz Kartel once pointed out, dancehall can’t stall and Adidja Palmer knows all about that. Confidence is key when facing tough times, and, as if by magic, the dancehall bosses are out in full force just when we need them most. Bossing up isn’t always easy, but in times like these it must be done.

Vybz Kartel ft. Teejay
“Uptop Gaza”

According to the old Jamaican folk saying, two bulls can’t rule in one pen. So what happens when you put the Worl’ Boss and the Uptop Boss together on one track? “Uptop Gaza,” naturally. Vybz Kartel may not be finished with his legal battles, but they aren’t holding him back from pursuing his musical craft. Earlier this month, a Jamaican appeals court upheld his 2014 murder conviction, but Kartel’s attorneys insist that their high-profile client did not receive a fair trial, and they’ve announced that they’ll be taking their long-running appeal to England’s Privy Council.

Despite almost a decade of incarceration, there’s no question that the Worl’ Boss remains a dominant force in the dancehall, his prolific lyrics providing a voice for countless ghetto youths. And when the Gaza General cosigns a new artist, it’s no small thing.

Teejay rises to the occasion on “Uptop Gaza,” bringing his lyrical A-game. “Ghetto youth fi rich inna life,” Teejay sings on the new Shabdon production. “Like say dem own ah money tree.” It’s a true fact that economic progress is a matter of survival, and that’s what Uptop is all about. “Uptop means progress overall,” says the man born Timoy Jones in the Glendevon community of St. James. “Uptop means greatness. Staying up, always trying to reach to a higher level in life.” Teejay may not have a money tree, but he’s got female fans bubbling with songs like “Up Top Boss,” and he’s established his “Owna Lane” in the business. Uptop even has its own slang, making “flossing” and “swagging” out of date;these days, you need to be “braffing.”

Teejay finds himself perfectly positioned, pairing with all the right people. The chemistry between him and Adidja Palmer is real; they’re scheduled to collab again on Kartel’s highly anticipated album Of Dons & Divas. Both artists are in rare form on “Uptop Gaza,” spitting hard from top to bottom. “Mix up di Remy with the Henny,” Teejay and Kartel proclaim on the song’s chorus. “Uptop, Gaza, wi ah run di city.” Not sure who’s Henny and who’s Remy, but they’re both top shelf, and it sounds like they’ve got the place on lock from St. James to Portmore (and anywhere in between). Here’s a little something to remind you that Di Teacha still rocks with the new generation. I guess that’s why he’s called Worl’ Boss.

Likkle Vybz
“Fresh Pair”

Vybz Kartel has enabled many dancehall stars to be born, inspiring various artists to proclaim, “Addi ah me daddy.” But few can truly make that claim like Vybz Kartel’s teenage boys, Likkle Vybz and Likkle Addi. Although not fully cemented at boss status yet, the sons of the Worl’ Boss seem to be making their presence felt. Having formed the duo U.T.G, which stands for Uptown Gaza or Uptown Greatness (depending on who you ask), they’ve dropped their first EP, Skinny Jeans. The brothers are signed to Short Boss Muzik, the record label run by their mother, Tanesha Johnson Palmer, a.k.a. the Short Boss. With a name like that, you know Tanesha’s a boss in her own right — I’ve never heard Kartel drop an entire album for no other woman.

“Fresh Pair” comes as a breath of fresh air from Likkle Vybz, simple and clean; his melodies flow over a moody rock-guitar loop, similar to the alt-rock groove his father used on “Neva Was Da One.” But rather than pouring out his heart, Likkle Vybz sings about his crispy Air Force 1s, sending his tune to all of his female fans, both “face smooth and bumpy girl.”

Kartel fans may hear some familiar sounds and sensibilities, sort of a cross between “Clarks” and “Straight Jeans & Fitted.” The melody is fun and the chorus is catchy as hell: “Jeans cut inna mi Air Force, fresh pair mi ah beat it.” Making simple things sexy and cool is something Gaza artists do well. Let’s not forget that Kartel singlehandedly raised the profile of Clarks, making them cooler than ever — and causing a worldwide spike in their profits. We may not need new sneakers during this pandemic, but you can always show them off on IG Live.

Popcaan
“Here to Stay”

“Fresh from Ghana, hotter dan ah sauna,” Papi sings on his latest single, “Here to Stay.” Although he’s currently quarantined in Jamaica, Popcaan kicked off 2020 with an extended trip to Africa, where he purchased a mansion. Known for his witty slang and catchy hooks, Popcaan got his start as a member of Vybz Kartel’s Portmore Empire, and now he’s leveled up to boss status. “Vybz Kartel put me to the world,” the Unruly Boss has told me on a number of occasions. “So big up Vybz Kartel anywhere him deh right now — nuff respect.” Having proven his knack for songwriting on Drake hits like “Controlla,” which also showcased his ability to out-sing any musical collaborator, Popcaan signed a deal with OVO. Since then, Popcaan has released the Vanquish mixtape, his follow-up to the album Forever. “Here to Stay” returns to the theme of longevity. “Go tell every devil and demon I’m here to stay.” Spoken like a true boss.

Jahmiel
“Jah Over Everything”

I first met Jahmiel as an up-and-coming singer while interviewing producer Notnice in his Kingston studio. As we wrapped the interview, Notnice introduced me to the aspiring acts gathered around us, and each one showed off their musical talent. Jahmiel stood out because he could sing as well as spit lyrics — and his voice was actually good. Fast forward a couple of years and I was at Rebel Salute enjoying a set from David Brooks, a.k.a. the Gully Gad a.k.a. Mavado, when Jahmiel popped out to do a guest verse. This was the same stage where Cocoa Tea brought out Koffee when she was a fresh face to the Jamaican crowd. Having a cosign from an established artist can be a game changer for a new career. It was certainly a big look for Jahmiel, who now refers to himself as the Patriot Boss. “Music bring me to the point where I’m at right now,” the young singer told me backstage.

Only a handful of artists sound good singing roots music over a dancehall beat. Jahmiel’s breakout tracks like “Gain the World” and “Strongest Soldier” show the strength of his vocal and songwriting abilities. Driven by a gently strummed acoustic guitar, his recent track “Jah Over Everything” will take its place in the same league. “Through the sad times and bad times,” Jahmiel sings, “Jah you never leave I alone.” Whether or not you believe in God or some kind of a higher power, faith may be the only thing that can get us through the darkest days. This song arrives right on time, to remind us we are never all alone. “The music is a powerful tool,” says Jahmiel, “and if we use it right we can make some changes.”

Check Jahmiel out on the Roots Revival playlist this week.

Bounty Killer
“Pum Pum Power”

Bounty is not just a boss, he’s dancehall’s 5 Star General. When I first heard this track I almost fell off my sofa. Killer’s signature hits, like “Anytime” and “Look,” shaped his iconic image as the “Cross, Angry, Miserable” Warlord we all know and love. There is no lack of “pum pum songs” in dancehall, but I’m not mad at the Warlord for recognizing female strength and ability — or, as he puts it on this track, “the powers of the pum pum.” Hearing this one took me back to the time he told me, “You know Bounty Killer has a lot of emotions … [he-motes in Killer voice] I love the ladies.”

Everybody loves classics like Killer’s collab with Barrington Levy on “Living Dangerously.” But even then his lyrics were about being pushed to the edge by his reckless lover. Despite his sometimes-harsh demeanor, whenever I see Bounty Killer there is no lack of females in his entourage (shout out to his female protégés the K Queens). Not sure what’s gotten into Bounty on this new song, but I guess the title speaks for itself. He’s bigging up the girls them proper, rapping in the rapid-fire style and pattern of Jammy’s classic “Sleng Teng” riddim. Kind of weird but fun — and the more you listen to it, the more you want to listen to it. IDK if I just can’t get over the lyrical content or the simple fact that Bounty is the person singing these words.

Alkaline
“Nah Fi Like”

Feels like a minute since we’ve heard from Alkaline, a.k.a. the Vendetta Boss. In the comic V for Vendetta, ‘V’ is the British character who fights a fascist government using terrorist tactics. Some see him as a freedom fighter, others as a menace. Alkaline drew inspiration from the character, perhaps because he has a similar profile within the dancehall — either you like him or you just don’t, but you can’t ignore him. Fans praise his creativity and carefree attitude, whereas detractors criticize him for failing to acknowledge his admiration for Vybz Kartel. Somehow he manages to keep people talking about him without worrying much about the critics. “We mek it past all of the drama,” he sings on one of his signature hits. “When dem a hackle up themself we keep it calmer/Feel like we can conquer the world now.”

Some have criticized Alkaline for basing his image and sound on Vybz Kartel, but it’s also true that he’s paved his own path in the dancehall genre, gaining diehard fans with his own musical talent and intelligence. “We just have to put it in a song and it connect to the people dem,” he once told me. On his new song, “Nah Fi Like,” his message comes through loud and clear. “Glad we make it out of this sinkhole,” the Detta Boss spits on the track, showing off his progress. “Yeah me used to struggle/Now me money up like me smuggle.” Coming on the heels of recent hit “Monopoly,” Alkaline’s new song is in heavy rotation as he moves from leveling up to bossing up.

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