Protoje: In Search Of Lost Time Album Review by Mr Topple for Pauzeradio.com.
To finish of In.Digg’s 2020 trio of releases, Protoje has finally dropped his long-awaited follow-up album to A Matter of Time. And it was naturally worth every second of the wait.
Protoje In Search Of Lost Time, released via In.Digg.Nation Collective, Six Course Music/RCA Records and Sony Music Entertainment, sees the man himself team up with a glittering array of producers, artists, musicians and even fellow label-mates Lila Iké and Sevana across 10 tracks. To be clear from the off: the sound is impeccable. Stylistically complex and inventive, it marks a paradigm shift in Protoje’s repertoire – while still firmly not boxing him in at all.
The opening cut Switch It Up sees Koffee come on board, fresh off the back of her million+ streamed hit Pressure. The title is in some respects wholly fitting of the track – as its composers (Protoje, Koffee, Royal Blu and Vision) along with Winta James (also on production duties) have blurred the lines between traditional Roots and more modern flavours exceptionally well. It’s a curious and brooding affair, dominated by several elements. At the fore is an incessant guitar lines from Lamont “Monty” Savory and James. At times they roll around semiquaver riffs based on the root chord of the phrase, then at others melodically run as a counterpoint to the main melody. Drums are overly Hip Hop-meets Roots, with the kick dominating the downbeats while a snare strikes the two and four and hi-hats run across semiquavers.
The most noticeable Roots device across Switch It Up is Donald “Danny Bassie” Dennis’s bass. Rich and rounded, it works off a drop-beat melody, skipping the three altogether. Its arrangement is classic post-Rocksteady, working melodically around the diatonic scale. Also, the horn line is fascinating. Dean Fraser’s sax, the trumpet from Dwight Richards and Everton Pessoa’s trombone almost replace a traditional piano bubble rhythm across the chorus, but embellish it: dropping the one, then hitting the ‘and-two-and-three’, before riffing at other points in Switch It Up. There’s also additional, synth horns which run glissandos along with the same rhythm as their real counterparts. And, that guitar line does the briefest of skanks almost out of earshot but still there.
Extra synths and samples build a Dubby vibe – and the whole thing is a delicious mix of Hip Hop and Roots. Koffee is on-point, using her lower register to perform the sweetest of singjay – and the backing vocals from Sevena, Iké, Jaz Elise, Chronixx and producers Iotosh, J.L.L. Ziah and James are inspired, creating a rich, deep chorus of voices. But this is also thematically a smart move, encompassing the track’s message of humble self-confidence, but also bringing Roots and its derivative music back to Jamaica; qualities all these artists possess and have accomplished. Quite brilliant.
Next, and Deliverance sees Protoje and Iotosh take the compositional and production leads, across a distinctly Ambient Roots track – with a feeling somewhere between Atlanta and Toronto. One Roots device is cleverly messed with, seeing a female vocal sample running a-near bubble rhythm pattern. Guitars skank, and the snare hits the two and four – but the nods to Roots end there, and elements of Trap and Ambient RnB then come into play.
For example, the rest of the drum line is dominated by the hi-hats – Trap-like in their frantic buzz rolls and dotted rhythms. Snares also do additional rolls, and they are complimented by a deep kick that focuses on the one. A lightly-touched bass line from Dennis runs a repeated, syncopated melody that hits every beat, along with a focus on semiquavers – except on the chorus, where it is stripped right back to just two/three exceptionally low beats, with slight Trap distortion. But it’s the production and synths that drive home that Toronto, ambient and otherworldly feel: the distorted and compressed male vocal sample; a haunting bell bottle synth running a double time rhythm; Stephen “Shaqu” Forbes’ congas and the added engineering a la a vocoder and stretched-out reverb across Protoje’s main and Iké’s backing vocals. Deliverance is smart, intricate and cleverly crafted.
Still I Wonder is a quite extraordinary piece from Protoje and producer Supa Dups, throwing back to early Hip Hop. Instrumentally, it works almost as the genre originally did. One part is the rhythm section; metaphorically turntable number one, if you like. It uses a heavy 808, synth bass (but undistorted as opposed to the modern, Trap sound) as the central force, which opens the track entirely by itself across a heavily syncopated rhythm. This continues almost unbroken throughout. Drums then enter on an authentic beat; heavily dotted focusing on the snare (open-skinned as well as rim clicking) and hi-hats. Mitchum Khan Chin’s electric guitar performs a broken, RnB-like skank across the bar – and the three lines combined are the vinyl sample on turntable one.
Over on imaginary turntable two, Protoje and Supa Dups have then built the instrumentation in. It includes an additional, deeper guitar line from Chin – running a strung-out melody which then elevates itself up to a screeching solo line; keys come in with semibreve chords, and some rasping horns also enter, running whining lines like the guitar. But in keeping with this old skool Hip Hop feel Dups and Protoje have put pointed breaks in; almost as if turntable two has been wound right back just leaving its counterpart running the rhythm. It’s brilliant thought-through, and works extremely well.
Some titles do what they say on the tin; Weed and Ting being one such example. Supa Dups is back on composition and production, along with the always-exciting The Grei Show. It’s a departure from what’s come before it – moving into a similar, Roots-meets-EDM-nodding-to-Trap territory that Sevana did with J-Vibe on Phone A Friend. Roots is still present, with the heavily reverbed, decayed and high-passed skanking electric guitars. But otherwise, the track is a melting pot. The drums are very cleverly arranged, generally being sparse on the verses, aside from tinkering djembe (or similar) – before coming in on the second half of the chorus, with a complex, Trap-led buzz-rolling and syncopated hi-hat line, which is repeated intermittently on the latter half of following verses. But the EDM factor comes in again with the multi-layered, choral-like backing vocals and the heavily synthed and tinny horns running double time, staccato spits. Adding to this is stretched-out bass: fulsome and resonant, it lets out a long breath on the first two beats of the bar, before moving elegantly around on the remainder. It’s blissed-out yet fluid Roots/EDM at its best – and wholly fitting of the subject matter.
The incredible Wiz Khalifa joins Protoje (with Supa Dups again co-composing and producing) across A Vibe (almost a response to Weed and Ting’s call). Dups is quite remarkable as a composer/producer, being able to turn his hand to any genre and combinations thereof (much like Protoje). Here, we go into something utterly experimental. Opening with a dampened balafon, it gives way for a Dancehall klaxon sample, before a winding bass kicks in. The drums are unfussy but rhythmically forward moving, focusing on the snare which utilises rim clicks and open-skinned hits. Strings put in an outer space-like appearance – distant and dream-like – and the track feels much like the subject matter: mind-expanding and vibe-chilling. Nice – and Khalifa’s rap is scintillating.
The single Same So was a huge online hit, with composition coming from Protoje, Ziah, Sevana, Savory and Iké – and production from the first two. It’s perhaps the most Roots-led track on In Search Of Lost Time – being driven by the first bubble rhythm across the keys of the album. The bass does a drop-beat rhythm, here skipping the two and working across a syncopated, diatonic-led riff. This is complimented by Savory’s guitars, which have a double line: one does a broken skank, the other performs a countermelodic line to the main melody. There’s a brilliant electric organ, running unfussy chords which just miss the second beat directly, coming in a whisper after it drops. Drums perform a driving one drop, with the snare and kick dominant on the two and four, while hi-hats fill in the space in between. Iké and Sevana’s backing vocals are expertly crafted, offering straight-up harmonisation, responses to Protoje’s calls and then additional melodic lines on top. Same So is modern, fresh Roots with a more urgent, demanding feel than the genre traditionally has. Lovely.
Iké then gets centre stage with Protoje on In Bloom, both across the composition and performances, with the track being penned with Natural High Music (the duo of Jordan “Tallman” Armond and Blaise ‘Binghi” Davis, who also co-produced the track with Protoje). It uses a sample of the Freddie McGregor track Revolutionist – a clever inclusion, which has been played on to fit with the more feminist nature of the subject matter, here – which almost feels like it could have slotted into Iké’s EP The ExPerience. That similar, Neo Soul vibe that was seen across tracks like Solitude is present here. The brooding, intricate Funky Soul-meets-Hip Hop drums are interlaced with some quicker snare rolls, but the emphasis is still on the two and four. The bass drops the fourth beat of the first bar of its two-bar phrase, creating a breathing space. There’s a clever, heavily compressed and high-passed horn line, which has been engineered to sound almost like strings; of which there’s a separate line, running drawn-out breves. The combination of these two lines creates some smooth fluidity to juxtapose with the more rapid drums and bass. But Roots is never too far away, with an electric organ running a bubble rhythm. Iké is at her best – unfussy, effortless and sensual, and the whole composition is ethereal, mellow and wanton. Beautiful.
The track Self Defence sees Iotosh back on production duties, with the composition coming from him, Protoje, Natural High Music along with J.L.L. and Romario Jackson. It takes In Search Of Lost Time back towards the brooding, unsettling sound found on A Matter Of Time – Hip Hop heavy, Roots laden and somehow with its other elements, otherworldly. The general production of the rhythm section is unfussy – the bass performing a dotted-note riff, again skipping the four on the first bar of each phrase. There’s the occasional hint of a bubble rhythm from the keys, but it’s merely a fleeting few chords. Armond and Davis’s horn arrangement verges on the Ska meets Afrobeats, as their sometimes call and response duties are like the former, but the layered harmonisation (unlike Ska’s octave-apart arrangements) are a bit of the latter. Across the chorus, they have rapidly peaking and troughing decay added, making them feel a bit Dub. A screeching electric guitar howls in and out at points; a flute enters the fray, also running a countermelody, there’s a clever use of a double time melodica riff – and all this leaves Self Defence as an almost impossible to box in fusion cut; one that works brilliantly and fits the lyrics about the state of society and violence against women (both in Jamaica, and globally) perfectly (with a particularly telling line about how those in power always blame Black music, not matter what genre it is).
Protoje along with Popcaan delivered the goods on the previously-released Like Royalty. You can read Pauzeradio’s full review of this stunning, inventive track here.
Protoje In Search Of Lost Time concludes with Strange Things. Penned by Protoje, Ziah (who co-produced the track, too), Savory and using the melody from the Papa San (Tyrone Thompson) song Strange, it’s an extremely classy and affecting conclusion to the album. Opening with a lilting, Soul-led guitar duet from Savory – it lulls you into a false sense of musical security. Because this then gives way for a ‘Roots-y’ skank and a RnB-led, repeated and slapping riff – which sets the pacey tone for the track well. Aside from the skank, it’s undeniably the heaviest Soul cut of In Search Of Lost Time. The winding drum arrangement is the second driving force; the bass, rolling around a ‘one-and-(two)-three-and-fourrr’ rhythm is as funky as they come. Carol “Bowie” McLaughlin’s organ is glorious – heavy on the vibrato across forthright chords and then breaking out into funky riffs across the instrumental bridge. The horn section, consisting of Adam Edwards on trombone, Steve White on the trumpet and a sax from Ryan Baker, is perfect: full of expressive use of crescendo and decrescendo, tonguing mixed with elongation and vibrato, as they respond to Protoje’s main calls; Baker’s sax solo being particularly enthralling. Overall, Strange Things is superb and a wonderful end point for the project.
Analysing Protoje’s vocals would feel like a waste of column inches. Suffice to say, he is the consummate Roots artist: delectable on the vocal, intricate and detailed on the singjay – and with a depth of expression that pervades both. But there are several points to be made, when looking at Protoje In Search Of Lost Time as a complete project.
The first is that, much like Iké and Sevana, Protoje has taken the Revival sound and moved it forward; certainly, when put parallel to A Matter Of Time. The influences of Trap, EDM and modern-then-classic RnB/Soul are apparent – and as a collection of works, this album and the ladies’ EPs The ExPerience and Be Somebody have created a new, almost unboxable-in standard when it comes to a modern, Roots-derived sound. Moreover, the use of just one talent on the mastering, Chris Gehringer from Sterling Sound in New York, has given the project a high-level of synergy and adds a glisten to the sparkle.
Secondly, and gone is the somewhat heavy, unapologetic subject matter of Protoje’s previous album. In Search Of Lost Time feels like he wrote it in a different mindset: less cautious and pessimistic, this album has the feel of a more grown spirit who has arrived at a place in his journey where the vision is finally beginning to be fully realised; perhaps reflective of Iké and Sevana’s respective success, family life and the merger with RCA/Sony. But with that, there’s also a sense of vulnerability and occasional self-doubt, too – with a focus on more personal content, as opposed to the political – representing a rethinking of, and change in, life and the use of ‘time’ from Protoje, this year. I Still Wonder is a stand-out example of this.
But what’s also marked, is that Protoje is again back to ‘time’ as a lynchpin for the project. Like the switching of subject matter compared to A Matter Of Time, here the sense is of a reflective look at time in terms of the notion of not wasting it; avoiding ‘lost time’ – instead focusing on the important elements of life: faith, love, family, self-worth and being true to one’s path in life. The album also feels slightly like an allegory to maybe the time the artist feels he has wasted, when on reflection he should have been focusing on the matters discussed herein.
Finally, Protoje In Search Of Lost Time also feels like a celebration of both In.Digg and Jamaican music, too. Physically this is represented in both Iké and Sevana’s repeated involvement across numerous tracks, the opener Switch It Up with its dazzling array of talent, and the multitude of producers working across the album. But with Roots somewhere at the heart of the majority of the tracks, Protoje has delivered a loving glance back, while on a musical march forward of epic proportions.
Protoje In Search Of Lost Time puts the third and final crown of 2020 onto In.Digg’s head. Musically inventive and revelatory, it stands out not least due to the quantity and calibre of the artists who have collaborated with Protoje across it. But it also marks a turning point in his own journey – arriving at a more settled, contented and rounded place. It is undeniably of the highest quality, and is a stunning look into the near future of where Roots-derived music is heading. Protoje has, across his career, consistently set the standard for many other artists to follow. Protoje In Search Of Lost Time is no different. Exquisite.
Protoje In Search Of Lost Time review by Mr Topple (28th August 2020).