Chronixx, the most talked-about reggae artist out of Jamaica in a generation, sees the release of his ‘debut’ album Chronology on July 7, 2017. The day the sevens clash is significant in reggae history as a day that prophesy was not fulfilled, at least not on 7/7/77.
I admit I’m intensely curious to see how this collection is received, mainly because I care about Jamaican music and its ongoing relevance, both on the island and internationally. Beyond Jamaica’s shores, the reggae genre needs an artist whose name isn’t Marley to keep it visible in mainstream culture.
The release of Chronology has the potential to introduce new listeners to the world of Jamaican music, but count me as skeptical of whether long-time reggae fans are going to go for this release beyond a small handful of tracks.
I’m not even sure what an ‘album’ means in 2017, as the term is a relic of the 78 r.p.m. era. Albums used to be a way of evaluating music as art – a collective statement of a musician at a given point in time. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about whether or not albums matter in reggae, where artists have always struggled to present cohesive ‘full-length’ works. Bob Marley was the master of LP album production, and this was a major aspect of his international popularity, although his loss of relevance in Jamaica as a singles oriented musician coincided with his rise internationally.
For Chronixx, a 2014 EP, The Dread & Terrible Project, featured seven songs and three companion dub mixes, serving as a stand-in for a first album. This helped fuel enthusiasm for the singer, landing him on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon in 2014 and again this past spring. With no full-length album yet ready, Roots & Chalice, a mixtape produced with Max Glazer of Federation Sound filled void in 2016 and spawned one of the singer’s most popular songs to date, “Spanish Town Rockin’.”
Pulling from the Roots & Chalice, Chronology features “Spanish Town Rockin’,” along with “Majesty,” a refix of Otis Gayle’s cover of the Spinner’s “I’ll Be Around.” “Spanish Town Rocking” in particular was ubiquitous across Jamaica all of last winter, standing firm with Vybz Kartel’s “Loodi,” Konshens’ “Bruk Off Yu Back,” Rihanna’s “Work,” and Drake’s “Controlla.” It’s no small accomplishment for a traditional reggae track to hold the corner with current dancehall and international hits, and props to Chronixx and Max Glazer for such an appealing update of a dancehall/reggae classic (Barrington Levy’s “Prison Oval Rock.”) It will be interesting to see if this track has staying power beyond its Jamaican success. The inclusion as the album’s lead track is significant.
For those whose interest and enthusiasm for Chronixx was established via “Here Comes Trouble” and “Capture Land” in 2013/14, there is unfortunately nothing comparable on Chronology, nothing with the musical force of those roots reggae anthems. “Here Comes Trouble” is one of the most successful reggae tracks of the past 15 years, and “Capture Land” took the militancy a step further.
Moving in a different direction musically, the most notable brand new track on Chronology is “Skanking Sweet,” a lovely tune of thanksgiving that finds Chronixx in the same mode as his early career duet with Kabaka Pyramid, “Mi Alright.” If there is any track new to this album that should earn a place the Chronixx setlist for years to come, it’s “Skanking Sweet.” I say that based on the strength of the recording and also the audience reaction during Chronixx’s recent performance at the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival.
True to its name, Chronology is not strictly derived from one dedicated recording session. It dips back as far as four years for one of its tracks, “Smile Jamaica.” This was among the strongest contemporaneous singles not included on Dread & Terrible.
Instead of delving deeper into roots reggae, Chronology attempts to go broader and offer something for everyone by working in neo-Jamaican soul/hip-hop. This is the main reason I question how the bulk of these tracks will be received by the reggae traditionalists who initially championed the singer. Moreover, the album has one real head-scratcher called “I Can,” complete with pool party harmonies and an incongruous Peter Tosh sample at the intro and outro.
The album includes a pair of clean yet seductively appealing pop/dancehall tracks, including the single “Likes,” which dropped last winter. This song shows how effectively the singer can work an original dancehall riddim. Chronixx uses “Likes” to explain how and why he has taken the time to build his career without a deluge of releases, shunning the ‘social media hype’ of ‘likes’ in favor doing it for the ‘love.’ Admirable yet ironic given the amount of social media hype that has catapulted him to his current status. The other pop/dancehall cut of note is “Loneliness,” which could sit nicely in a mix with Rihanna’s “Work,” a song he specifically namechecks in “Likes.”
Given the success of “Sell My Gun” from Roots & Chalice and the emphasis on “Likes” as a single with its own video, I would have expected more of this style than the kind of neo-Jamaican hip-hop/reggae that overwhelms the album (“Country Boy,” “Ghetto Paradise,” “Selassie Children,” etc.).
To give the singer the benefit of the doubt, a diversity of styles and range is a great way to build a body of work and to make a complete artistic statement. The trouble here could be failing to meet the expectations of his original reggae fans. Some of them may feel let down when more than half of the album falls outside any conventional definition of reggae. But take heart, the lyrics on many tracks are strongly Afrocentric/Rastafarian. One of the albums most successful non-reggae tracks is also its most pan-African, the soul-groover “Black Is Beautiful.”
The album’s second track is a solid duet with his father Chronicle, called “Big Bad Sound.” This is the album’s only combination style track, perhaps surprising given some of his excellent prior collaborations with Protoje, Kabaka Pyramid, and Eesah.
Another song with strong potential on Jamaican radio is the anthemic “Legend,” an ‘everyman as hero’ song. This celebrates the kind of humility that Jamaica would do well to embrace. Coming from a rising star like Chronixx, the message could resonate.
The mixing on Chronology is largely credited to James “Bonzai” Caruso, whose work on Damian Marley’s “Welcome To Jamrock” in 2005 gives him exceptional credentials in the area of helping Jamaican music reach far beyond its shores. Bringing in Bonzai was a smart move since several of the tracks had a previous life and probably needed some sweetening to sit in a cohesive, album-length work, not to mention that the sessions span at least five different studios in different countries and several different producers including Chronixx.
At 16-tracks and 67 minutes in length, Chronology is probably 4-5 songs longer than it needed to be, but it’s 2017, so you can cherry-pick the songs you prefer and leave the rest. How this work figures in the career calculus of the singer is beyond my pay grade, but regardless, it marks an important moment for him, and as we move, I’ll be listening for what happens next.
–Carter Van Pelt, July 2017