Another week, and another long-anticipated debut album has arrived. Having been in the making for around five years, it’s time for Dre Island to present his first full project to the world. And the world needs to make sure it’s ready. Because he has risen to a glorious plain.
Dre Island Now I Rise, released via Dre Island Music and Kingston Hills Entertainment and distributed by DubShot Records, is nothing short of remarkable. To call it an “album” does not do it justice. It’s a project, expansive in its musical content, sweeping in its thematic narratives and cinematic as a sum of its parts. The vast array of producers on Dre Island Now I Rise, and the success of this multi-collaborative approach, is also a measure of Island’s natural talents. But central to all this is the music. And it’s almost impossible to fully furnish it with enough praise.
The Intro sets out the album’s stall perfectly. Like UK-based conscious Hip Hop artists Lowkey and Akala do so well, here Island has taken the closing speech from Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film The Great Dictator and set it to a musical backdrop. It’s unsettling, giving a sense of a coming storm – and opens proceedings well.
The first track, Kingdom, takes the intro’s musical theme and runs away with it: driving, brooding Hip Hop from Island and producer Anju Blaxx. Military buzz rolls on the snare nod to the preceding track and are on repeat throughout. The kick is dominant and incessant, on a dotted quaver-semiquaver-crotchet rhythm (oneee-and-twoooooo). Tom-toms match this at points, notably on the bridges. The hi-hats and snare provide cover for this, but in a rudimentary manner. This puts the drums firmly in Kingdom’s driving seat – but the keys come a close second.
They stylistically borrow from Soft Rock, with a running, double time riff – working around non-harmonic arpeggio chords and runs that start in the bass clef and lead into the treble. It’s endemic of the genre (think Heart and “Alone”) – but has been a favoured device and also hybrid style of many Hip Hop artists (think Eminem and “Toy Soldiers”). And given the track’s subject matter, this 80s power ballad-like compositional device is a clever musical paradox. This contradiction that shouldn’t work, but does, is enhanced further by the choral, vowel-based then layered backing vocal. Interestingly, the bass is unusually passive, running on stretched-out notes which add a relentlessness to the track; again, thematically appropriate. There’s also an inspired use of panpipes; vast breaks, stripped back to their musical bones and even a vocoder comes into play. The result is that Kingdom is an imposing, furious raging against the system. Artistic perfection.
The title track strays away from what’s come before it into heavy, Rock-led Soca. Yes, you read that right – and with Island fully in charge of production, and having co-written the track with Damion Gager, it’s an impressive creation.
Take the percussive arrangement as a starting point. The kick generally fires on every beat, but at times dropping the fourth. A snare hits the offbeats before each up, and hi-hats fill in the spaces between these beats. It’s essentially that elementary Soca rhythm of a persistent kick, the snare on a (oneee)-and-two(ooooo)-(three)and-four(rrrrr) and the hi-hats quickly hitting its breaths. And then the bass just compounds the Soca feel even more with its dotted quaver-semiquaver-crotchet rhythm across much of Now I Rise. It’s essentially Soca devices, but slowed right down to give the ‘feel’ of the genre without any of the frantic momentum.
But it’s the electric guitars which share this prominence. Their arrangement is extremely complex: across multiple lines and layers they resemble an instrumental choir running counterpoint melodies. But they’re overly Rock, with the use of pinch harmonics (that ‘squeal’), bending, tight slapback and plenty of runs and improvisation around the chromatic scale. Meanwhile, those Soft Rock arpeggio keys are back again; staccato strings bring a touch of cinematic elegance to proceedings and there’s even a nod to Roots with an acoustic guitar that skanks at times. All this makes Now I Rise a heavy, rocky yet winding track – and full of more musical wizardry.
The album then goes into Afrobeats-based territory with We Pray. Featuring the supreme talents of Popcaan, again Island leads the production – and it’s more of an ‘Afroballad’ than ‘beats’. The complex composition from Island and Sean Paul-credited Matthew Keaveny, and production from just Island himself, is supreme. In short, Afrobeats devices are used, then other elements are smoothed out – and while the physical BPM is slower than normally found in the genre, the feel of the track is even slower still.
So, for example, the percussion, while not as offbeats focused as some Afrobeats, is still there as a busy, driving force on the choruses. But on the verses, it is stripped right back before it and some heavy synths pre-empt a ‘drop’. Meanwhile, the kick does an elongated Dancehall clave and horns are included at points on rapid riffs. So – while not as frantic as Afrobeats the arrangement is still busy. But those heavily synthesised and rasping, reverbed strings, often present in the genre, are also there – yet they only hit on the first beat, then the semiquaver before the third and the fourth in every second phrase. Keys do the same across chords and the bass also repeats this rhythm. So, the busy percussive and synth lines are watered down by the use of the three beat-per-bar rhythm on the others – effectively creating a lilting, ballad effect, enhanced by the musically stripped back verses. It’s a brilliantly thought-through arrangement and plays well to both artists’ talents.
Never Run Dry allows Roots to enter the fray, but oh-so subtlety. And with the highly in-demand Winta James at the composing and production helm, it is of course ingenious. Just at the start you can hear keys treading a bubble rhythm – but they’ve been so heavily compressed they’re just out of earshot. A guitar does a half-time skank, and the drums tend to push the snare hard onto the upbeats, reminiscent of a one drop. The use of a police siren sample along with heavy reverb is very Dub, and a bass runs a semiquaver riff around the root triad – an old skool, 4-feel walking arrangement at home in earlier Ska. But the driving feel and force of the track is again, Hip Hop – with the relentless hi-hat/snare rolls and the kick on the downbeats. But it’s done in a distinctly Revival way. The use of a synth theremin at points, an electric organ whining in the background and the occasional rapid-fire, stabbing strings are endemic of the movement. And Island spitting “and this is no BBC interview” is just the delicious icing on the cake.
The album smooths things out somewhat with the hybrid cut Days Of Stone featuring the legendary Chronixx. Islands’ love affair with keys is on show again, via both his production and co-writing with Kurt “Birdie” Thomas and Ezra Tafari. But this time the melodic arrangement is nearer RnB ballad territory than the chord-heavy arpeggios of Soft Rock. The drum arrangement is again Hip Hop. Horn’s perform a response duty to the main melody’s call, giving an old skool Soul vibe. Backing vocals are harmonised, running a counter-response to the Horn’s – and again, it’s all very Soul. But the bass is more Roots: syncopated, but on a drop riff that misses the second beat in the first two bars of a four-bar phrase, then drops the one as well, in the latter two. And Island’s main melody, working around a singjay style in terms of notation and rhythm on the verses, but broadening out into full vocal on the chorus and bridges, is also very Roots – not least the heavily dotted, winding rhythms used. Overall, the amalgamation of genres is in essence 21st century Neo Soul: employing devices from other genres with Soul sensibilities to create a hybrid sound. This mashing-up is prominent in a lot of Roots-derived genres, especially in the Revival movement, at present. But there’s an art to it – and Island has mastered it, as Days of Stone is classy, audibly pleasing and cleverly executed. And marks the first of several moves into this kind of realm.
My City, composed and produced by Jam2, is in a similar vein – but it’s more abrasive, less smooth and starker in its arrangement. The bass is a forceful feature, working around a dotted quaver then triple semiquaver riff but not dropping any beats. Hip Hop drums again operate, rasping synth horns flit across staccato semiquaver runs contrasted with drawn-out breves at points. It’s perhaps the most unfussy arrangement on Dre Island Now I Rise – which is clearly intentional, allowing Island to take centre stage. The vocal arrangement is heavily layered, filled with harmonies and reverb – and its Soul-based format is a nice piece of musical contrast to the other, gritty arrangement; perhaps reflecting the contrasting elements of the subject matter well.
Then, Four Seasons sees Dre Island take us straight into pure, unadulterated 70’s/80’s Funky Soul – with exquisite production from Teetimus. The stripped-back drums, focusing on the kick on the downs and the snare plus claps on the ups, along with the hi-hats on persistent quavers and some cymbal rolls on the occasional first beat of the bar creates that head-rolling wind. Then, the bass is cleverly composed to enhance this: heavily dotted, it swaggers in and out, moving up and down the harmonic scale – before in the second bar of its phrase pre-empting the third beat (coming in on the final semiquaver of beat two). This smart musical device again enhances that funky feeling – and it’s replicated by the rasping, synth horns (very late 70s/early 80s). They’re on a constant, swaying in-and-out decayed riff that works around the third, fourth and fifth of the root key chord, regardless of what harmonic changes have happened. Again, this musical juxtaposing of harmonic elements is glorious Funky Soul. Electric guitars also perform persistent, one drop riffs – and the whole package is enhanced by Island’s straight vocal plus singjay and its accompanying, end-of-phrase backing harmonies. It’s a delicious track, expertly executed.
Dre Island Now I Rise moves from the last century directly into 2020 with Calling, as producer Island shows us more of his Afrobeats side, assisted by composer Dunwell. It’s perhaps a measure of his skill that he can put this genre back-to-back with Funky Soul, and make it work. The snare dominates the percussion, rapidly hitting the second beat and offs after the third, which instantly make that Afrobeats sound come alive; further pushed by the kick hitting the off between beats two and three. The keys and high-passed synth strings serve the same purpose – keeping a sense of smoothness present by sitting on dotted semibreves then crotchets. But the latter, with its nods to Dancehall, give that bang-up-to-date, club-led vibe. A bass, rounded and resonant, gives the track momentum with its dotted rhythm. Additional percussion filters in and out, a vocoder messes with Island’s vocal on some otherworldly, dream-like breaks and bridges, and the whole affair is a jittery yet somewhat delicate take on the genre that’s dominated for several years now; an increase on the momentum of Afroballad We Pray, but still more pared-back than the genre usually is – for the minute.
Run To Me moves Dre Island Now I Rise into yet another musical area, with the help of the superb Alandon. The track is bathed in that ambient, otherworldly Toronto RnB sound, pioneered by the likes of Drake. The mashing-up of Soul and Hip Hop/Trap, as the genre does so well, is clear. The intricately scored hi-hats and snare interchange almost without space to breath, using rapid semiquaver-driven broken beats, with buzz rolls thrown in; heavily borrowing from Trap. But the rest of Run to Me utilises more Soul-led devices: a bass on a drawn-out dotted semibreve, before a quaver hits after the fourth beat; a delicate, rolling piano riff, arpeggio-based once again, is incessant in the background and the vocals are heavily harmonised and layered. And that’s it, as far as the instrumental arrangement goes. But that’s the trick with Toronto RnB: keep the composition unfussy and let the production and engineering do the work for you. And producer Kushface has delivered in droves.
The piano line is particularly pleasing as an example. It starts off heavily compressed, giving the feeling that the sound is coming from another room. A low-pass filter has obliterated the higher kHz, created a sound so warm and round it feels like it might burst. And the reverb is just right so as each note delays for around a beat after its been hit; echoing just enough to give a haunting vibe, but not so long that it becomes a mess. But then, Kushface has messed with the piano line some more during the track. At points the low-pass filter is slowly wound back, leading into a high-pass one and the piano becomes rasping; tinny – almost like a trumpet. Decay comes in and out, making the line dreamlike and the whole arrangement is central to Run to Me’s success as a piece. It’s this kind of expert production, coupled with the clever arrangement (taking a fairly rapid 4/4 BPM and halving the feel of the pace to almost 2/2 through the bass and percussion) which makes the Toronto RnB sound. And it also makes Run to Me one of Now I Rise’s stand out tracks.
Favorite Girl is back to that Neo Soul feel, again – but a whole, other hybrid to what’s come before it, thanks to composer/producer Barkley Productions. The snare takes a more traditional Dancehall bass clave (‘oneeeeee-twooo-and’ x 2) and uses half of it, dropping instead on the third offbeat and then the fourth, all via rim clicks. Hi-hats feel more Afrobeats, while choral voice synths add a touch of Trap. The bass is on smooth, elongated drop rhythm, missing the two in the first three bars of the phrase, and then skipping over the one in the final fourth. But yet again, the vocal lines sit more within the boundaries of Soul, aside from Island’s near-singjay verses. It’s clever hybrid-creating, which is also seen across Be OK, with the ever-excellent Jesse Royal – and again Island does all the production and composing himself. But here, the track almost feels like a throw-back to the original Neo Soul of the late 90s/early 2000s. Maxwell would surely approve.
More Love goes straight for the current Afrobeats-led Dancehall sound with producer Household Music, and represents the final progression in the three tracks that have used the genre. The drums do a similar rhythmic arrangement to Calling, in terms of that offbeat, stuttering feel – but the kick is now dominant, hitting every beat directly. The hi-hats and snares are more interchangeable, too – with more rapid buzz rolls being deployed on the former. Synths feature heavily, from rasping horns which have been engineered to sound almost like a crying human voice, to delicate strings humming in the background. Dancehall gets a nod via the piano arrangement, which is chords across a stretched-out clave. Interestingly, the bass takes somewhat of a back seat – leaving the percussive arrangement in the driving one. This also serves to allow Island’s vocal to take centre stage – which, especially on the chorus, has an extremely smartly composed melody that’s almost anthemic in nature. The addition of a vocoder just finishes off the 2020 sound perfectly, and More Love represents one of the strongest conscious Afrobeats/Dancehall cuts of the year so far. But moreover, its place in the trio of the genre across the album is also a delicious move: introducing the sound early on (We Pray) but in a musically delicate way, before building (Calling), then building again to this final, fuller sound. Inspired.
The album concludes with Still Remain. It’s an ingenious piece of musical bookending from Island and producer Dretegs – because it marks a not only a return to the heavy, imposing and military-meets-Hip Hop style featured on the opening track Kingdom, but therefore by default is a wholly apt conclusion to the project – ending effectively where it started. But it’s not entirely in the same vein, as the Hip Hop drums have been stripped away to focus on African percussion like djembe, slowing the feel and taking some of the brashness off – aside from the wholly cinematic and imposing string section, orchestral in their arrangement and foreboding in their unsettling nature. It stirring and moving stuff – and finishes the project off perfectly.
Across Dre Island Now I Rise, the absence of Roots as a musical genre is noticeable. But Island and his team have actually performed a masterstroke by its seeming exclusion. By marrying sounds of other genres, often across one composition, with Island’s overly Reggae vocal and lyrical delivery, Now I Rise still feels like a Roots album; albeit with the most delicate of nods to the genre. But the spirit of the movement is placed left, right and centre in Island’s performance.
His voice is highly unique – insomuch that he sings with the heart of a Soul vocalist, but often with the rhythmic head of a Roots artist. Island has a truly versatile melodic range, sitting as comfortably in a rich, resonating upper baritone as he does in a soaring tenor and on occasion delicate falsetto. His timbre is gravelly yet at times smooth; his use of vibrato pointed and breath control extremely good. It would be easy to categorise him as a Soul singer.
But here’s where the Roots comes in. As so much of what Island does is clearly driven by singjay sensibilities. This is demonstrated across the project, where he delivers a unique style of this: vocally often finely-tuned while running across a range of pitches – but keeping the melodic arrangement pared-back. But he employs extreme attention to detail with rhythm, using complex patterns juxtaposed with repetition. Essentially, Island sings like a Soul artist but spits like a Roots one – a highly unique and versatile approach. And the sum of this is his awe-inspiring delivery of the potent lyrical content.
Dre Island Now I Rise is almost a voyage across Island’s experiences. Intro puts some historical context from the off, before Kingdom discusses the impending fall of Babylon to Zion in a spiritual, conscious war cry for all Rasta, but also humanity more broadly. The title track builds on this theme, but takes Island back to more of a starting point on his journey: discussing what led him to be at this higher conscious and spiritual plain and the pitfalls he experienced due the system and those around him on the way. This righteous anger then gives way to humble reflection on We Pray, and also the knowledge that if we keep Jah at the forefronts of our minds and lives, then our paths will be clearly laid out and righteousness will prevail.
But there’s a sea change in Never Run Dry as the broad reality of being conscious under the heinous constraints and corruption of the system is starkly laid out – and how it tests even the best of us. But the message of standing firm is clear. Days of Stone takes the notion of the conscious and how we interact with, and try to fight against, the system around us one step further, detailing the ‘hows’ and ‘whats’ of life in this century – and how little has actually changed over time.
My City is perhaps one of the more moving tracks on Dre Island Now I Rise, because Island has taken the broad previous narratives about the system and how it affects each of us, conscious or not, and directly put them into the context of Kingston, Jamaica. It’s an emotive, highly sad but also oddly positive evaluation about how the global contrasts of Babylon are represented as a microcosm in one city.
The album takes another turn with Four Seasons, as Island moves into a narrative about spiritual love and finding it. This leads into Calling, as he muses on the trials and tribulations of this love under the system and the physical elements, also. Run to Me takes this again further – but focuses on the realisation of this love being lasting. Favourite Girl finishes this ‘act’ off, with the cementing of the relationship proper. But this entire section also serves to have a broader point: that with everything about the system and how we must fight it which Island discussed prior to this – none of it can truly happen unless every King has their Queen; essentially that we all need emotional and spiritual love to be complete.
Dre Island Now I Rise moves into its final act and the tone shifts again, moving back towards the overarching philosophising on the system and human interactions with it. Be OK hones in on our relationship with the planet, making the latter anthropomorphic – referred to as “she”, as Island and Royal discuss our callous disregard for the Earth – but that, with faith and resolve, we can still pull ourselves back from the brink. More Love is perhaps a sum of many of the parts that have come before it: that despite the horrors of Babylon, you can not only find love with others but also the love, humble self-confidence and faith in Jah to begin to be part of the global shift we all need to see – while ensuring it’s rooted in that love. Still Remain concludes with an ‘end’ to the opening, continuing the theme of the brewing storm – but with a shift in the approach. Gone is the fury and anger, replaced (due to the experiences detailed in the rest of the album) with a strong, firm and almost calmer resolve: one that says, despite what’s come before you, you will ‘still remain’ true to Jah and the cause.
So, the album effectively lays out a roadmap from being a raw, angry yet somewhat unrefined soul, still finding direction in life; to finding and understanding that direction; to the point where the path we’re all meant to tread in life becomes crystal clear. It’s a staggering, almost literary narrative – complexly created but actually wonderfully accessible. And of course, the diverse palette of music included also reflect these experiences, being another sum of Island’s experiences.
Dre Island Now I Rise, simply put, is probably one of the best projects of 2020 so far – and will remain so until 31st December. It would be near-impossible to condense what Island and his production team have created. But if forced, it is a phenomenal encapsulating of an artist’s life: musically a stroke of genius, lyrically mind-blowing and thematically cinematic. Island has just placed himself amid the greatest Roots-derived artists of the past few decades. And all this just in his debut album. Almost unbelievable. You can pre-order Now I Rise on your preferred platform here. Dre Island Now I Rise review by Steve Topple (28th May 2020).