Thursday, September 12, 2013

album review: 'back 2 life' by sean kingston

There are some performers that you can look at once and immediately know that they're going to be a pop smash hit - and sometimes, it doesn't even rely on their music. They have the look and sound and natural charisma and you just know in your gut that on image alone, there is serious potential for them to become huge. The great producer songwriters have a knack for spotting these types and then giving them everything they need to become chart smash hits, whether it is songs or enormous overproduction to overlook the fact that they can barely hit a note - they smell money, and they're going to make a killing.

With all of that in mind, Sean Kingston does not seem to fit that mold - at all. Not to be offensive, but the fellow kind of looked a bit like a doofus back when debuted with his self-titled album in 2007, and he just seemed to have some of that wide-eyed naivete that didn't exactly strike me as the look of a professional. Now there was a reason for that - he made those first two albums when he was a teenager, and it shows - but he seemed like the kind of performer who was very much aware of the fact that he didn't quite belong in the pop landscape, and was just riding out his time in the spotlight for as long as he could.

And really, that was kind of a shame, because he wasn't a bad performer, particularly for his age (his first album came out in 2007 when he was seventeen, when he was my age). He had a distinctive voice and some occasionally interesting (if amateurishly written) songs. Furthermore, he brought a welcome touch of reggae to the mid-to-late years of the first decade of the 2000s that I definitely appreciated - it gave him some personality and helped him stand out. Yes, most of his songs had the reek of JR Rotem behind them, but I thought that with time, he might be able to transition into at least a successful reggae act, if not a pop star in his own right. But after his second album didn't sell all that well, Sean Kingston seemed to vanish from the public eye for a good four years, with only occasional public appearances (most in Africa), a series of mixtapes that nobody cared about, and a pretty traumatic jet-skiing accident (he made a full recovery) to mark his time out of the spotlight. 

But now he's back with a new album Back 2 Life, heralding his return to the spotlight once again. Did he put those four years off to good use and have something great for us?

Ugh, well, not really. Don't get me wrong, Sean Kingston's Back 2 Life is okay, but there are a number of problems with this album that really got on my nerves and prevent me from fully getting invested. And the sad fact is that most of these problems aren't really Sean Kingston's fault.

Now don't get me wrong, I still don't think he's a fantastic performer, but Sean Kingston does appear to be trying on this album. There are moments where some of his Caribbean flavour does leak away in favour of a more generic R&B sound, but I was grateful for the moments where he did attempt to infuse his music with more of a reggae flavour through his vocals. It doesn't happen nearly as much as I'd like, and it's a far cry from what Snoop Lion did with Reincarnated, but it's at least there and it gives Sean Kingston a unique sound.

And on the topic of a unique sound, there are some pretty decent grooves on this album. The highlight for me was 'Smoke Signals', courtesy of RedOne (who does a fairly solid job fusing Sean Kingston's reggae sound with conventional electronica), but there are small moments all throughout the album that I liked - little spots of piano and acoustic guitar that balance well against Sean Kingston's voice. Yes, it's a complete throwback to the mid-to-late 2000s period when Sean Kingston was big, but it's a better step to take than try to adapt to a trap sound that would do Sean Kingston no favours whatsoever. If I'm going to take issue with anything here, it would be in the production - it's pop and thus is pretty flat, not really allowing the instrumentation to have a lot of texture and feeling, which is disappointing because it doesn't really enhance Sean Kingston's unique characteristics as a performer.

It also doesn't help matters that most of the guest stars phone it in. T.I.'s verse on the title track seems like it was lifted from the title track of his album 'No Mercy' and seemed to be repping more for his music (most specifically his 'Trouble Man' concept that he's running with for his albums) than for Sean Kingston, and Wale and Wiz Khalifa both filled their verses with pretty lazy punchlines that really don't do much other than fulfill contractual obligations. Fortuantely Busta Rhymes goes hard, but that's because it's Busta Rhymes and the guy always seems to deliver when nobody asked him to - either way, it's welcome. The surprise from me came from 2 Chainz, who actually delivers a pretty decent verse - sure, it's shallow as all hell, but the rhyming was good and 2 Chainz sounded enthused, so what more can I ask for?

But now we have to get to the two big problems with this album, and let's start with the smaller one: the lyrics. I've got to be honest, but the songwriting, while not terrible, really did nothing for me on this album, as it's just a series of love and dance jams that we've all seen before from Sean Kingston. There are a couple of witty lines (particularly that line about Motley Crue on 'Smoke Signals', I thought that was decent), but they're held back by entire tracks like 'Beat It', where Sean Kingston actively encourages a girl to cheat on her boyfriend and get with him so he can 'beat it'. Now this is a nasty implication already, but then it's only augmented by the fact that the guest star Sean Kingston recruited for this song is goddamn Chris Brown, who sings the lines with such smug superiority that it makes Sean Kingston come across as a naive idiot for recruiting him for this song. I've almost run out of rage for Chris Brown, but at this point, I'm listening to this album and I'm wondering whether or not he's just trolling us at this point.

But putting aside that, there's a bigger problem with this album and it's fairly simple to point out: the executive producer JR Rotem. A lot of fans of pop music really don't like this guy, mostly because of his attitude towards sampling. This is the guy who stole Soft Cell's amazing version of 'Tainted Love' and turned it into 'SOS' for Rihanna, and who appropriated Imogen Heap's 'Hide And Seek' (after it had already been turned into a meme) for that twit Jason Derulo for 'Whatcha Say'. And he's worked with Sean Kingston before, swiping the melody line from Ben E. King's classic 'Stand By Me' for Kingston's 'Beautiful Girls'. Now, keep in mind I'm not really against sampling, provided that there is appropriate recontextualization or it's done in an interesting way, like with Eminem's usage of Dido's 'Thank You' for 'Stan', or basically everything The Beastie Boys ever did - but with JR Rotem, too often he just takes the melody line and beat of the song and does nothing with it - and when he does that, it feels like it's barely above stealing.

And sure enough, we get the same sort of theft on this album with tracks like 'Ordinary Girl', which is basically a direct lift from 'Ordinary World' by Duran Duran! And sure, it sounds good and it works well with Sean Kingston's voice, but it's so blatant and so immediately recognizable that it shatters the immersion of the album for me. My thoughts change from 'Ooh, that's a catchy song, I like that' to 'Oh dear Christ, JR Rotem is sampling again' and instead of enjoying the new track, I'm stuck thinking in my mind where the hell I know that melody from - and as soon as I figure it out, I'm just left disquieted and annoyed. It made it very hard for me to enjoy the rest of the album because I felt like instead of enjoying the new music, I was poring over the rest of it to spot more out-of-context samples.

And really, that's kind of a shame, because this album isn't all that bad. Oh, 'Beat It' is atrocious and might easily be one of the worst songs of the year, but the rest of the album is exactly what you'd expect from a Sean Kingston album, presuming you're prepared to experience a time warp back to 2007. If you're a fan of Sean Kingston and you've been looking forward to his comeback... well, this album feels like more of the same, with a few hits in 'Smoke Signals' and 'How We Survive' (the track with Busta Rhymes) and hell, if you've never heard Duran Duran 'Ordinary Girl' isn't bad, but it's also really doesn't have the staying power to stick with you. If you're looking for a score, I'd probably give it a 6/10, if only because the songs were inoffensive enough and if you can get past 'Beat It', the album does have a fair amount of upbeat energy and shows that Sean Kingston can be a decent, if fairly limited performer as he has gotten older. 

At the same time, if you choose to skip this album, you aren't missing much.

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