I-Wayne: Philosopher King of the Reggae Ballad
Fans of roots reggae might have wondered what happened to I-Wayne, who burst on the scene back in 2005 with the hit Can’t Satisfy Her, from his album Lava Ground. He hasn’t been idle. At a revealing private performance for media late last month, he revealed that one way he gets inspiration for songs is to take a walk on Port Henderson Hill in his native Portmore, Jamaica, an area packed with history: the eras of Sir Francis Drake, the holocaust of the slave trade, the struggle for Jamaican independence and then of the Rastas have been interwoven over the centuries there. It’s fertile territory for deep thinking, which is what I-Wayne offers on his long-awaited new album Life Teachings. This guy is a serious artist – relevant without being preachy, romantic without being saccharine, he combines the confrontational, politically-charged fire of, say, an Anthony B with the easygoing spirituality and charm of Luciano. If those artists go back a few years, so does the vibe on the album: it’s real roots reggae, with a band, and real bass and drums, recorded in the same clean, efficient style as a Dr. Dread production from around the turn of the century. It’s out now on VP, the folks behind the Strictly the Best compilations for what seems about a century.
At the concert, a popular New York reggae dj marveled at how she thought that the first track, Burn Down Soddom (an original) meant that the album was going to be “all Rasta”- but then she was completely taken in by the ballads, “something nice and romantic, that a guy can sing to his girl,” she explained. No doubt she also liked I-Wayne’s soaring falsetto – he goes way, way up, further than Dennis Brown sometimes, into Al Green or Philip Bailey territory. As much as those songs, like Real and Clean – a plea to keep things down-to-earth – or Empress Divine, or Pure As the Nile work a catchy boudoir angle, the real gems here are the more in-your-face tracks.
It takes awhile for these to make an appearance here. Burn Down Soddom has to be the most laid-back incitation to arson ever recorded, with a woozy, lengthy dub passage. Herb Fi Legalize is the obligatory weed smoker’s anthem, a peaceful tribute to the healing herb that contrasts with The Fire Song, a no-nonsense, straightforward dancehall duet with Assasin to “get rid of dem thoroughly, burn burn dem no apology.” But Drugs and Rum Vibes is a surprisingly plaintive stoners-vs.-drunks narrative, cynically referencing the the CIA’s role in the illegal drug trade while alcohol-fueled violence kills thousands more.
Wise and Fearless is a message to the youth to understand how a cycle of violence can keep an evil, illegitimatepower structure in place. After all, di wicked aren’t about to Change Them Ways, as I-Wayne makes clear on the next track, an unselfconsciously gorgeous tune that contrasts with its grim lyrics. The title track is a casually amusing polemic in support of a vegan lifestyle (with plenty of ganja). The album ends on a surprisingly brooding but potent note with Do the Good, a seize-the-day meditation since there may be no tomorrow, and “plastic man dem fake like dem love ya…but dem blood ya.”