When I first started listening to Ini Kamoze in the mid-1980s, I was fascinated with his knack of using few words to say a lot and make full songs over some heavy rub-a-dub rhythms, stretching a word with his voice to cover bars where someone else would have used maybe a couplet (Worl’ A Reggae Music, Trouble You a Trouble Me). Then came the 1990s ‘Hotstepper’ hip-hop years, followed by a quiet period (at least, in terms of what we heard in Jamaica).
Now comes the 16-track 51 50 Rule on his own 9soundclick imprint, a very good album which incorporates elements of what I have heard from Kamoze over the years, with the addition of even more refined writing.
However, 51 50 Rule suffers at the very outset from trying to be all things to all people, as after wading through the first three songs – Gangsta Roll, Isgonbehot and To Da Bang (featuring Busy Signal) – I was just about ready to give up on the CD. It is not that the starting hip-hop trio is outright horrible, but the ode to the gangster life is extremely stale news and not deli-vered in an exciting new way, ditto for the following clubbing tune. And the Busy Signal combo is as subtle an attempt to reach out to the next generation as a parent listening in on their children’s conversation and saying, "just pretend I’m not here".
From the top drawer
The CD really starts with the R&B Rapunzel (featuring Maya Azucena) and glorious it is from there to the end with another R&B track, I Wish. It is not only the beats that are good (there is a blend, hip-hop dominating numerically with Red Outa Road and other tracks, bonafide rub-a-dub on my absolute favourite track, Hungry Days, and Latin on Morenita – where Kamoze sings in Spanish), but also that the lyrics are from the top drawer.
So on Rapunzel, a take on the fairy tale, Kamoze emphasises the social distance between himself and the lass of his dreams, but is insistent on still being of practical service to her with "I’m in the garden pulling your weeds". That’s cool, though not mind-blowing, but it gets better.
We ‘yard’ people know exactly what Kamoze means when he sings "gwaan acting like Ben/who couldn’t cope and pick up soap" (Red Outa Road); that sentiment is repeated in Jailhouse ("fifty push-ups inna the morning time/shank fi who sing the boy is mine"). He questions the reality of our supposed indepen-dence on Rasta Nation Now, chanting "unplug yourself" to a backing vocal chant of "free", as well as on Control, musing, "I still can’t tell what the hell them put in my ice cream swirl".
And there is the autobiographical Hungry Days, about life in Spanish Town, a gem of a rockers tune which locates the time period through reference to fashion ("lust after girl inna Ferlucci"), and the desperate situation by combining a popular Jamaican saying with hymn ("worm inna mi belly singing nearer to thee"), as well as popular food ("we could not afford Aunt Jemima much less Uncle Ben"). And Kamoze states his determination to survive, advising "don’t make my casket yet Mr Morgan/hol’ on don’t drive no nail I’m a busy man".
The gangster attitude works much better on Hardware (also a hip-hop song) than Gangster Roll, with Kamoze singing, "don’t roll with no army/but to harm me/is against my will"). R.A.W., featu-ring Sizzla, is also a much better combination than To Da Bang, the two-generations exchange of lines in the chorus is a good balance of tone, Kamoze’s more gentle tone counter-balancing Sizzla’s grit.
Of course, there is My Girl, which made an impact as a single, an absolutely hilarious statement about the qualities of his lady ("my girl, no carry 50 grand purse with 40 cent in it, my girl no come pon site a hype fi baby food"). And in his ode to yard, Out of Jamaica, Kamoze honours one who is often left out of the musical battlefield dispatches, singing, "where Jimmy Cliff come harder".
On 51 50 Rule, Kamoze consistently uses more words in his songs than we have heard him do before – to good effect. The music is good and varied and his voice is in good nick. It’s a pity some snipping wasn’t done and the first three songs left for a ‘bonus track’ offering somewhere, and we’d have got to the meat of the matter 12 minutes earlier.
1. Gangsta Roll
3. To da Bang (featuring Busy Signal)
4. Rapunzel (featuring Maya Azucena)
5. Red Outa Road
6. Rasta Nation Now
9. Hungry Daze
10. Battlefront Warrior
12. R.A.W. (featuring Sizzla)
13. My Girl
15. Out of Jamaica
16. I Wish
– Mel Cooke