“Why do you always look behind?
Whatever you’re looking for you, will not find
You’ve been down that road before
So I know you can’t find love, cause there’s no open door
But in me, is a desire, to love you endlessly
And in me, burns the fire of great possibilities
I know your heart’s frozen, your soul’s broken
I’ll melt with flame away – the fire is in me”
It’s not every day you hear a reggae performer who could double for an soul singer from Detroit sans the Jamaican accent, but Duane Stephenson is not your every day recording artist. The 34 year old dread was originally the lead singer and songwriter for a successful vocal group called To-Isis, until in 2007 he decided to branch out on his own and try his luck as a soloist on “From August Town.” The title track and the album both won praise from critics who appreciated both the range of his voice and the fearless way he documented the good and bad of his poverty stricken and war-torn Kingston community. Regrettably I missed that solo debut but having listened to “Black Gold” I think I’m going to have to go back and check it out. Stephenson is quite a wonder for the ear to behold. His accent and pronunciations are still wrapped in the island nation he hails from, but so powerful is his vocal tone and the diaphragm which pushes it out over the microphone that almost every word will make perfect sense to even the most jaded listener who thinks they can’t understand Carribean music. “Fire In Me” above is a great example of his clear spoken croon, as is the stirring track “Truth Is”:
“One more time me ask dem kill with the bombs
and the weapons of mass destruction
Spread some love to the heart of the sons and daughters
We are robot without instruction
Turbulence’ll rock dem boat
And every day now the rain dem a soak
Dem still have the breath of life, Jah must know why
He never let them children die
So why YOUUUU, think you know the best for all?
When we rise them want fi see us fall?
And why YOUUUU never seem to realize
That no matter what you hear we cry”
The album is largely and ably produced by reggae sax legend Dean Fraser, and the sound fits Stephenson’s moods on each of the 14 tracks like a glove. The powerful and provocative classic roots melody of “Jah Works” harkens to the best of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ songs. The brassy and boisterous backdrop of “Cycle Goes On” is Stephenson’s plaintive ode to the negative cycle of death in Kingston: “Can we seek a resolution? Why can’t we change the situation?” Why indeed. “Woman” may be one of the most understated song titles in history – it gives you no idea just how heartfelt his ode to the better half is or how ideally the use of piano and slowly drummed tempo explains how “she’s the only one who can make you feel like man.” Fellas, turn the lights down low and don’t be afraid of the incense for once – this one is gonna get you laid. “Stay at Home” with Queen Ifrica is one of several fun and jazzy collaborations on the album, standing shoulder to shoulder with “Soon As We Rise” with Ras Shiloh and the guitar rock tinged “Rescue Me” with Gramps Morgan.
Now obviously RR is not a primarily reggae themed website, and I’ve many times acknowledged I would not profess to be an expert on the genre even though I’ve been a fan and follower almost as long as I have for hip-hop music and culture. That being said there’s the only saying “I may not know art but I know what I like when I see it” and I would say the exact same of Duane Stephenson. His voice is truly a revelation – in terms of the power of his voice I’d rank him right up there with Barrington Levy. Some people may consider that sacrilege but I’ll stand by it having enjoyed “Black Gold” thoroughly from start to finish. The strength of his clarion Carribean call would be muted if paired with poor production, but thankfully VP Records has recognized this blossoming reggae artist for the star he should be and ensured he gets a high quality jam for every song laid down in the studio. The result is that “Black Gold” is a very fitting name for both this album and this artist. Don’t miss him.