The pursuit of crossover happiness has been at the top of Jamaican dancehall music's "to do" list for years, especially since its clicking, clattering, ultra-mechanical rhythms have become so deeply integrated into American R&B studio production. The thick patois of dancehall music's stars was once a problem for American listeners to get past, though it's gradually been filtering in through hip-hop.
The real thing still hasn't made it here, though. Several years ago, in 1998, singer/spieler Beenie Man had a gigantic hit that nearly infiltrated the mainland mainstream "Who Am I" and now he's dancehall's best hope for the U.S. charts. Art and Life, his latest release, is designed to work as a hip-hop/R&B album as much as a straight Jamaican-style record.
Curiously, Beenie is trying to cross over on dancehall's own terms: toning down its linguistic and musical conventions not a bit, just adding some pop-friendly elements. The result is entertaining but so bound by the requirements of Jamaican and American clichés that there's not much room left for his own personality to come through.
The album's got rappers: Wyclef Jean and Redman both turn up on a remix of "Love Me Now." It's got R&B divas: Kelis croons the chorus of "Jamaica Way," and Mya turns up on "Girls Them Sugar." It's got a vocal signature: No fewer than six tracks begin with Beenie intoning some variation on "zugga-zow, zigga-zow." It's got familiar riddims: the backing tracks that get used over and over on Jamaican records. Finally, it's even got a couple of stylistic experiments, such as "Tumble," a lightweight stab at soca.
The ultimate combination of all this predetermination is the original version of "Love Me Now," which features a "zugga-zow" intro, a verse or two by Wyclef, the Jackson 5 groove that Naughty by Nature recycled as "O.P.P." re-recycled, and Beenie toasting a mile a minute and laying the impenetrable patois on with a backhoe along with, to top it all off, a few choruses of "We Shall Overcome" from a gospel choir. It's totally manipulative, and totally hard to resist.
Weirdly, though, the cheaper the production of Art and Life gets, the more fun Beenie sounds like he's having. "Trus Me" seems to have slipped on from a heavy Jamaican single, with a backing rhythm that sounds like a Casio preset, and his mulitracked, chattering voice sort of like a team of Rasta-ready auctioneers slaloming around the narrow melody comes alive without all the extra production loading it down.
And, at the end of the album, he lifts the riff from the Staple Singers' "I'll Take You There," sticks a kick drum on it, delivers a little sermon about how he wants "to make the international public understand what I'm trying to get across to the world," and slides abruptly into a passionate (if not-too-reverent) cover of Alton Ellis's 1966 rock-steady hit, "Girl I've Got a Date" (RealAudio excerpt).
Suggested album title change: Less Art, More Life.