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Mavado's 'Special' brand of dancehall justice

March 5, 2009 |  6:39 pm


Bailed-out bankers should be thankful that the Jamaican dancehall singer Mavado doesn’t run U.S. economic policy. On his latest single, “So Special,” one of the rare dancehall records to spend time on recent Billboard Hot 100 R&B/Hip-Hop charts, he paints himself as an avenging angel of the poor and dispossessed. “Fire it 'til wet pon dat / you betta help poor people” he wails over a minimalist stutter-step beat. “Every dirty work, Jah shall show dem a sign,” perhaps one where the “special” is of the .45 variety he mentions in the song.

That sort of lyrical world -- one where violence is an appealing way out of an intractable life -- has made Mavado one of the most riveting and controversial Jamaican artists today. He’s caught the ears of Jay-Z, who made his reggae debut on a remix of Mavado’s “On the Rock,” as well as the U.S., U.K. and various Caribbean governments who denied Mavado visas based on Jamaican gun charges (which were eventually tossed out).

His neighborhood and lyrical visions are dark places, but Mavado doesn’t want you to confuse them for his heart.

“Governments don’t know me as an artist,” he said. “There are people in the media (that spread rumors) but it’s just not reality.”

Reality has changed significantly for Mavado during the four years he’s been growing into a figurehead in one of the most compelling city-scenes in music. He grew up in Kingston’s Cassava Piece neighborhood, one of its most notorious and crime-ridden areas. Yet he’s led a revitalized wave of dancehall artists including Busy Signal and Vybz Cartel (and young producers such as Stephen McGregor) into a sound that pairs the mournful-thug lyricism of classic U.S. hip-hop with icy synthesizers and rueful vocal melodies. His breakout album, the 2007 debut “Gangsta for Life…The Symphony of David Brooks” was apocalyptic in its vision, matched by his “full black” wardrobe and the otherworldly, wrathful timbre of his tenor that falls somewhere between rapping, singing and funereal lament.

But as his star grew locally (everything he touches is a chip-shot to top the Jamaican charts) and inevitable talk of crossover grew, his followup “Mr. Brooks… A Better Tomorrow," which came out in the U.S. on Tuesday, lightened up a bit. “So Blessed” dips into almost gospel territory, and the lascivious double-entendre fest “In Di Car Back” is a cheerfully racy club banger. Even the boasts like “On the Rock” and “Real Killer” have something of a playfulness about them, like Mavado knows he’s winning whatever fight he’s in.

It might be a pitch to finally break dancehall into the U.S. mainstream, or simply a reflection of a better mood given his recent success -- either way, it’s working. Mavado sees his Jay-Z collaboration as less a ticket to ingratiate himself to U.S. hip-hop than a way to introduce the new class of dancehall to new fans.

“This will let a lot of people in the U.S. know about dancehall,” Mavado said. “It’s Jay-Z on a Mavado track, he can break Mavado to a wide audience. But I’m a dancehall artist.”

So much talk about reggae centers around U.S. crossover potential, and while it certainly couldn’t hurt Mavado, who will play L.A. in May, to a point it doesn’t matter. The Jamaican and Caribbean diaspora ensures a fevered response in cities around the globe that localized hip-hop artists would trade a Maybach for. And, like so many artists in the U.S. and around the world, he’s already weighed in on the rap lyrical topic du jour: the merits of our new President, with an “On the Rock” remix titled “We Need Barack.”

“Obama shows that black people can be whatever they want to be,” he said. “To go from Martin Luther King to Obama, it makes the community proud.” 

--August Brown

Photo courtesy Afflicted Yard and VP Records