Fire Down Below

Voltaire once observed, “Anything that is too stupid to be spoken is sung.” And so what? Pop music is supposed to promote heavy breathing, not heavy thinking. But if a musician aims be the world’s moral compass—as does reggae’s Capleton—he leaves himself open to Voltaire’s judgment. Marley and his ilk made it OK to worship the Most High while high, and more importantly, elucidated all He wrote on the subject of truth and rights, re the visceral dignity of the Black Sufferer. Which leaves Capleton and today’s other wannabe reggae prophets two choices —either follow ’70s scripture, hoping to measure up, or attempt another heroic reggae cycle by coming harder, tougher, and holier than those who went before.

No aspirant comes harder, tougher, or holier than Capleton, who burst on the Jamaican dancehall scene as a slack-mouthed, braying DJ with ’88’s “Bumbo Red”—titled after a common Jamaican expletive—and was born again in ’92, robe-garbed and chanting “Dis the Trinity,” a swaggering defense of Rastafari. Capleton’s two-album Def Jam tenure yielded a ’95 hip-hop hit in the Dynamic Duo’s jacked-up remix of “Tour,” Capleton’s furious staccato inventory on Jamaica’s moral decline. Smoldering and crackling with righteousness, Capleton’s rigid sense of decorum came saturated in hormones—key to the hellfire-spouting preacher-man virility that’s blazed his path of cinders to reggae’s front lines. Ninety percent of Capleton’s “fya bu’n” indictments of organized religion, global corps, heads of state, and other familiar Babylonian villains have been on target, but from “Tour” to 2000’s More Fire, the problem’s been the other 10 percent. Whether the homophobia and misogyny (that also blight almost all current reggae) are carryovers from tight-assed, purse-mouthed, colonial-era Brit sexual fear or personal limitation, the result was lyrical statements too stupid to be spoken.

You had to hand it to him, though: Capleton was determined to walk that talk, even if it meant settling for big-fish-in-a-small-pond status. But Still Blazin shows an apparent change of mind, if not heart, in reserving Capleton’s incendiary blast for more deserving targets. His most mature and realized set, it’s tipped more toward positive role modeling than scattershot sniping.

Capleton’s intelligence is not distinguished by originality, subtlety, or depth, but it does carry the steamroller force of conviction in pop philosophy—that haven for those with minimal tolerance for relativity and life’s other knotty tricks. His power is in his persuasion—the way he tears into basic concepts, as if he’d received them on a mountaintop, and invests them with absolute belief. If he were any more sophisticated, Capleton might be embarrassed by lines that teeter over the abyss into reggae cliché, like “Rasta have to show them sign/Them can’t stop the hands of time,” from “Search Fi a Find,” the set’s opening track. But it’s not so much what he says that matters as how he says it. Like the snarled aside dropped into the cyclonic rage of “Mashing Up the World”—”I ain’t got nothing to do with them/ I burn them out already/and I do it again, yo”—or the soaring moans of “re-e-e-e-d-hot” (a favorite Capleton refrain) that embellish the “fya bu’n” speed rant of “Cooyah Cooyah.”

Honoring the spell of his kamikaze energy is not the least of Still Blazin‘s achievements. Only Capleton can step on a stage—as he did last January in Jamaica, at the annual “Rebel Salute” concert—and pronounce, “Me gwan bu’n fya ‘pon everyt’ing,” and not come off like a total madman. Just mad enough to plant the suggestion that the venue—already lit up with impromptu bonfire and towering flares from propane torches—could be reduced to ashes by the time he was finished.

Capleton calls down the spirit in Still Blazin with enough passion to conjure up a vision of his concerts: night air sparking with swirling live embers and turbaned bobo dreads calling for “More fire!” as they run up and down to breeze out red, green, and gold flags emblazoned with that same slogan. Incorporating his skillful DJ drill into the growls, yodels, and moans of a singer so lost in the moment that he lacks any self-consciousness, he holds back nothing because he knows he won’t run out. Even his audaciously crude rendering of a romantic ballad, “In Your Eyes,” gains power from the sex of his tough love.

A record like this can exhaust listeners, but Still Blazin wisely interrupts Capleton’s intense aggression with brief respites of reflective calm in “combinations” with One Love apostles Morgan Heritage and Luciano—”Behold” and “Haile King Selassie” respectively. The tracks, overseen by the Capleton-run David House collective, also spring him from his own whirlwind by drawing on dancehall’s keenest young producers, including Capleton himself (under his birth name, Clifton Bailey), with each cut making a different but equally compelling compromise between dancehall’s digital tautness and classic reggae’s analog warmth.

At its best, Still Blazin‘s restatements of the Rastaman’s ABCs build the kind of electric charge that can meld a crowd of people into a single, ravening mind, and Capleton has an undeniable gift for exploiting the dissonances of his pistol-packing prophet image—startling spiritual turns couched in the rough poesy and rhythms of Jamaican patwah. He’s agitating for an extra-musical leadership he won’t achieve, but at least no one can resist his command to hit the dancefloor.

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