Album review: Jah Sun “Between the Lines”

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Despite my knowing about many reggae artists out there today, I had never previously heard Jah Sun until his album Between the Lines (2017, Sugar Cane Records) arrived in my mailbox. Glancing over the album I cautiously believed I might be listening to yet another wannabe using one drops and easy skanks in a trivial attempt to make resurged reggae music.

Wrong. So wrong. With the first listen of BTL I was enchanted not only by Jah Sun’s compositions- an uncanny ability to integrate folk, West African vibes, roots reggae, and hip-hop seamlessly into reggae- but by his creative lyricism, an incredibly difficult task for artists keeping to the Rastafari tradition. Each song shines, beautifully, often with luscious horns, thick bass, catchy choruses, and thoughtful verses. BTL could be in the running for best reggae album this year.

Although Jah Sun hails from the Bay area, his reggae vibes are more Jamaican than SoCal. In the past, Jah Sun has been mostly hip-hop/dancehall (think Collie Buddz or Alborosie), and while elements of this remain for his latest release, he’s pushed himself into new waters. In fact, if James Taylor and Paul Simon somehow birthed a child who fell in love with reggae and had a child with it- that would be Between the Lines.

The opener, “Only Human”, has something of a Simon-meets-Michael Franti vibe. The West African-style backing vocals blended with poetry lead to: “I’m been the prey/ I’ve been the predator/ I’ve been the simile and the metaphor/ I’ve been the paper/ and I have been the pen.” Later Jah Sun adds, “In the midst of a moment I caught a glimpse of forever.” Humble is the name of the game, and his message is clear, yet delivered with poise and honesty.

On “1997” he weaves his childhood into a poetic narrative on a soundscape reminiscent of Ziggy Marley. For the first verse, he sings soulfully, and for the second he returns to his hip-hop roots: “I got some things I’d never do again… You did your best (woah!)/ You did your best (yeah!)… Every mistake is a blessin’.” In truest reggae fashion, Jah Sun is able to portray hardships enveloped in upbeat melodies.

Yet literally every song on Between the Lines is excellent, and it would be difficult to pick a key track. “Guess Who” feels like it could have come out of Alborosie’s playbook- a flawless meditation with slickest of flows. “Tables Turn” once again integrates West African traditions into pop sensibility, detailing the issue of White Privilege- yet without any cliché or finger pointing.

Even the title track, which begins with soft acoustic guitar strumming and an ample string section, veers away from corny. “Some standing in the welfare line/ while others dine and drink red wine/ Some will fall and some will climb,” he croons in the chorus. It’s close to mush but the integrity is so great that he manages to hold his ground. Besides, the song is followed by “Ghetto Ballad”, beautifully and logically composed. I encourage Jah Sun to pay attention to his poetic side and continue to push his lyrics. He has the ability to write far beyond the typical reggae vocabulary. He’s headed in the right direction.

In fact, this album is so palatable I’m confident I could play it for people who hate reggae and they’d love his message and precision. Albums as touching and congruent as this are rare, especially those with the production and mixing grace that Jah Sun pulls off here. The songs are timeless, the melodies ear candy, the message positive, and overall, Between the Lines should be anything but that- it should be listened to with care and mindfulness.

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