few blocks from my old High School is a Jamaican restaurant that serves jerk chicken, fries, and a drink for $3.75; they also sell Jamaican meat pies (in a high school cafeteria stylee) for $1.50. I’m a sucker for spicy food from the home of Red Stripe, but for my purposes, the best deal rests above the register, next to the black and green license plate cases and bootleg DVDs, where dancehall mix CDs are sold for $8 a pop. The last one I bought was 82 tracks long, a cavalcade of artists and riddims crashing headlong into each other and gathering speed, a musical mudslide of energetic bashment dance music. The DJ spins TOK’s best sun-blasted party cut halfway through; “Hey Ladies” is an arresting exultation directed at (whom else) the women in the audience, urging them to throw their hands in the air over the compulsively danceable Jankunoo rhythm. It is the energetic high point of the entire 82-track CD, and it is difficult to picture anyone who would not sing along with its infectious chorus.
“Hey Ladies” also appears on T.O.K.’s brand new release, Unknown Language, which ranks alongside Vybz Kartel’s Up 2 Di Time and Ward 21’s U Know How We Roll as one of the best dancehall albums to come out of Jamaica in the recent past. That said, dancehall LPs can be an uncertain prospect; I find that 82 tracks of high-treble insanity careening from spastic Elephant Man rhymes to strident Vybz Kartel cadences to anonymous R&B; starlets is, without question, the best way to plunge into a world of music that dominates the culture of a tiny island hundreds of miles away. Yet Unknown Language manages to capture the energy, if not spirit, of the dancehall mix in one great summertime album.
Group members Craig, Rashaun, Xavier and Alistair play off of each other with unparalleled musical chemistry and character; R&B; crooning jumps to baritone toasting, while top-notch dancehall production and songwriting provides the basis for the group’s weird pop sound. They blaze through the sunshine-bounce of barbecue burners like “Hey Ladies” and “Music Pumping,” dash through the rain for “We Will Survive,” stomp in the dust on “No Way Jose,” and bump on the dancefloor with the bubble-pop funk of “Neck Breakers.” The more you hear, the more you have to participate, when humming becomes singing, and tapping your foot becomes a full-out dance exercise. “The music’s pumpin’ / People are everywhere…” Physically compulsive, spiritually inspiring, T.O.K.’s sonic celebration is impossible to resist.
Not to say that Unknown Language is samey, like one big ecstasy rush. If anything, its appeal is as invested in surprise as it is in having a good time. For example, there is “I Get High,” the requisite ganja tribute that floats breathily through the open air, a mesmerizing, compressed vocal sample shooting above cirrus clouds for the chorus, like smoke dancing behind your eyelids. The Shaggy collaboration “Déjà vu” reinvents “Louie Louie” via dancehall, as if T.O.K.’s members just discovered rock and roll; and their collaboration with Miami rapper Pitbull jerks to a brand new beat courtesy a reggaeton remix. Then there’s “Wah Gwan,” a rapid church-infused bounce via the “Oh My Swing” rhythm that explodes with handclaps and organs, a rather subversive message hidden behind its triumphal exuberance. By the time the familiar T.O.K. anthems arrive near end of the album, they are welcome, like the climactic moment in a dance club mix. Although Unknown Language is never tiring, when the Coolie Dance fades, you will feel physically depleted from dancing, singing, and kicking up dust.
It isn’t all one big gleaming ragga party; a mournful, evocative ballad entitled “Footprints” wells up next to the overt celebration, the sobering shade of reality throwing the light to the rocky underside of life, temporarily halting the cheerful regularity. Like most of the songs on the album, though, you cannot help but participate. “When you cry, I cry, I cry along with you.” And you do. You do.
Reviewed by: David Drake
Reviewed on: 2005-07-22