Fri June 6, 2014
First Listen: Popcaan, 'Where We Come From'
Originally published on Tue June 10, 2014 12:17 pm
Popcaan is something of an unlikely hero in the world of dancehall. He grew up in the Jamaican projects without becoming a hard-edged "rude boy." And he's neither crooner nor spitfire MC — instead, he stands happily between those extremes. The deejay's debut album, Where We Come From, is equal parts dancefloor anthems and "conscious" tunes about Jamaican life, unified by breezy, fresh production from Brooklyn's Dre Skull. He's known to family and fans alike as the "Unruly Boss," not so much for bad behavior as for a fierce independent streak, manifest in his idiosyncratic vernacular, style and music.
Born Andrae Sutherland in the rural parish of Saint Thomas, Jamaica, today Popcaan is the prototypical local boy making good, with a U.S. label and endorsements from the some of the biggest names in mainstream hip-hop, including Drake, Busta Rhymes and Snoop Dogg. In Jamaica, however, the only co-sign that matters was Popcaan's first — a 2010 collaboration with Vybz Kartel (dancehall's "World Boss") called "Clarks" put the young deejay on the dancehall charts and solidified his status as Kartel's protege. A string of successful singles followed, mostly summer dance tunes like "Ravin'," "Party Shot," and 2012's "Only Man She Wants," his first entry on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop charts.
Singles have long been the currency of dancehall, as they're much easier to promote and distribute through soundsystems and radio play. Where We Come From's executive producer Dre Skull, however, has been at the controls for some of the genre's biggest recent cohesive efforts, including Kartel's 2011 Kingdom Story and Snoop Lion(/Dogg)'s Reincarnation. Both of those projects brought the producer and Popcaan together, and the two began collaborating on tracks like "The System," a deceptively upbeat song critiquing Jamaican politics and inequality. Skull's genre-bending (yet still undeniably dancehall) aesthetic amplified Popcaan's increasingly inventive vocals, making an ideal musical match.
On Where We Come From the duo (along with producers Dubbel Dutch, Jamie YVP, Anju Blaxx and Adde Instrumentals) bring the lush, synth-filled sound of R&B artists like Future into the world of dancehall. Slightly slower tempos give each track's many layers room to breathe, leaving Popcaan's vocals clear and uncluttered (they're relatively easy to understand, even if you've never heard patois before). Some are sparse to the tipping point of melancholy, like the album's first single "Everything Nice" — it's a song about gratitude, but if the singer were anyone other than the generally-cheerful Popcaan, it could almost be a ballad (just listen to the Mavado remix). Others, like "Number One Freak" and "Love Yuh Bad," are club-ready gyal tunes that show the Unruly Boss living up to his hometown heartthrob status. Their unfailingly danceable riddims, though, are still tempered by the album's streamlined production and Popcaan's lilting vocals.
Nothing gets too aggressive on this record, a departure from the "badman" themes that have prevailed in recent dancehall courtesy of artists like Kartel, Mavado and Busy Signal. Popcaan's proclivity for the positive is a major reason he has such crossover potential — not just in terms of the buoyant riddims he chooses, but also in terms of subject matter. "Everything Nice" and "Give Thanks" are both about overcoming daily struggles by finding "a party fi take out the trouble on." "Hold On," along with the title track, is an inspirational record from Popcaan to his countrymen and women, about staying strong even if their situation seems bleak. Though some of the topics are serious, the album as a whole is ultimately uplifting. Where We Come From is Popcaan's way of using his growing international success to stay connected to his roots.