I’ve been wanting to write about this new Protoje album, A Matter of Time, for a little while now. Every time I sat down to do so, I stopped myself and said, just wait for the full project. Well, the album drops on Friday, June 29th, and I can’t wait any longer. As Jadakiss famously said, “I’m running outta my patience” (“Knock Yourself Out” 2001).
With four singles released ahead of the album, there’s ample material to mine for triggers, specifically musical triggers. But what are musical triggers? Well, as a very condensed definition, musical triggers are the ways that music (lyrics, rhythms, tones, melodies) trigger emotion and memory in the listener. You can read more in this summary article published in The Cut and within you can click on links to the 2017 scientific study by Signy Sheldon and Julia Donahue (or click here). So what does Protoje’s most recent work trigger?
Well, the first single was released last year (Feb 2017) and “Blood Money” hit the ears and mind like a missile. Protoje’s weapons, of course, are the most deadly ones available to us: bullets of truth. I mean, honestly, what hurts more than pulling back the curtain on this island’s corrupt reality with lyrics like these: “How much dead baby deh over Jubilee?/ How much youths did 10 when them run inna Tivoli/ Now them 16, heart fry, head fricassee.” Negative feelings and negative memories of news about Riverton landfill and the air pollution that is killing the surrounding communities, the people as well as the plants. Painful memories that date back to colonial rule and linger in the selective blindness of the police, surface as one listens to “Blood Money.” Traumatic memories of local news reports about the suspicious spike in infant mortality at Victoria Jubilee Hospital and the shallowly buried memories of international news reports about the Tivoli Incursion are unearthed as this lead single plays on. Protoje’s lyrics are potent and this first release was intentionally and specifically triggering for the Jamaican listener.
Mortimer assisted on the second single “Truths and Rights” (Sept 2017) where he and Protoje remind listeners that they are about activism. This reminder is important in a pop music world that continues to pump out consumerist songs about buying more and spending more and rappers like Big Sean and Drake feign humbleness to sing about being blessed to be “here for a good time, not a long time” (“Blessings” 2015). In the face of this, “Truths and Rights” proudly states:
“Cause Jah Jah bless I with the brightest light
And I ah shine it pon di yout dem plight
Cah we deh ya so fi truths and rights
Deh ya so fi truths an rights
And until the day that my soul takes flight
Babylon will hear my voice…”
For me, this single triggers reggae memories of Johnny Osbourne’s 1979 classic of the same title and similar content.
Then, this February (2018), “Bout Noon,” the third single, was released. This single had a different tone and a different affect. Triggering still, but personal instead of national. “Bout Noon” paused discussion of the nation’s politics to sing a praise-song. For me, “Bout Noon” triggered positive memories of Black Star’s ode to the black woman “Brown Skin Lady” (Talib Kweli and Mos Def — now Yasiin Bey, photo below) and recalled Sade’s 2010 album cut “The Moon and the Sky” (which I think producer Phillip ‘Winta’ James’ is riffing on to build the beat for “Bout Noon” and there may be a hint in the music video — see the video still below). Known for their Pan-African worldview and broad musical influence, in 1998 Black Star rapped a silky love poem to the black woman whose beauty of mind and body could make a man “ride a Coltrane to A Love Supreme“. In 2018, Protoje’s “Bout Noon”, though sharing themes of Starland Vocal Band’s 1976 classic soft rock tune, “Afternoon Delight”, I’d argue that “Bout Noon” places itself in critical conversation with the soulful, moody jazz of Thelonious Monk. Quite personally, “Bout Noon” triggers memories of my wedding day when I walked down a New York City aisle to Miles Davis’ rendition of “Round Midnight” (1955) and together my husband and I walked out to “Dipset Anthem” (2003), a yet-to-be-duplicated musical hybrid of reggae crooner Sanchez and Harlem’s unique brand of hustle rap. But back to “Round Midnight.” As the most recorded jazz standard EVER, Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” (1944) is set twelve hours before (or after) Protoje’s “Bout Noon.” Even observing the visuals of the “Bout Noon” single (above), Protoje is seen looking out on a Kingston night sky, not a sunny city noon-scape. Of course, the video is partially set during daylight hours and in the Tweet and screen-grab featured just below, Protoje’s fictional lover is lying on the bed clothed in a sweatshirt depicting Sade’s face (a nod to the song’s production?). Protoje is an uncommon reggae artist. He is a student of music. What I mean is that he listens and learns and works with producers and musicians who are also listening and learning. How else do you create a song like “Bout Noon” that triggers the sentimentality of Sade, the romantic longing of Thelonious and Davis’ style of jazz, while still delivering dancehall-influenced poetry like: “mi catch a prophecy/ fi kotch yuh pon top ah me/ … one call and mi deh pon yuh bass like oddesey”? “Bout Noon” straddles genres, blurs musical spaces, and complicates the potential of Jamaica’s music/ians to consider what is creatively possible when the music pushes beyond the new popularity of the trap sound or the tradition of the one drop bass line, when the music educates listeners about romance and not just Rastafari, and when the music seeks a shelf-life longer than a hashtag and consumer trends.
The final single that dropped was “No Guarantee” (May 2018), which brings Protoje back together with his “Who Knows” (2015) collaborator, Chronixx. “People got expectations/ Will they love you?/ No guarantee,” sings Chronixx in his familiar falsetto voice. But it is Protoje who declares his frustrations with the jealous types and those who grudge-fully limit and criticize others when he sings out: “Some will say you no Ras/ cause you jump in a Benz/ like me never see Selassie/ in a couple ah them.” On this track, as it is with the other singles, Winta James grinds out a classically disruptive rhythm to match the content and the triggers are there. Who doesn’t have negative memories of being falsely judged? How many times have we been assumed or presumed to be someone or something we are not, all because “people got expectations”?
So, what about the rest of the album? Well, Friday I’ll know and will update this post accordingly. For now, I’ll just restate that this album is triggering, issa thing.