Romain Virgo came onto the reggae scene in 2007 when he won the Jamaican equivalent of American Idol, the Digicel Rising Stars competition. His 2010 self-titled debut was an excellent album, highlighting an amazing voice that belied his young age. Now, at 22, he’s releasing his sophomore effort, “The System.”

The opening track sounds suspiciously like Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister,” with its acoustic guitars and “hey-yeah’s.” I immediately got nervous: did Romain go mom rock? Then his voice kicks in and all fears subside. The song is about the many ways in which the system lets people down, with a mournful chorus of “I feel like letting go.” It’s gorgeous, heartbreaking, and soulful, exactly what you’ve come to expect from Romain.

Much of the album deals with the struggles of average people. “Minimum Wage” describes the challenge of working for peanuts. ” Somebody tell me if this is not worse than slavery/Living under minimum wage,” sings Romain. He follows this up with the similarly themed “Another Day Another Dollar,” and the deceptively upbeat “Food Fi the Plate.”

Romain shines brightest on tracks like “Dem a Coward” where he gets a chance to show off both his amazing voice and his powerful yell, calling out thugs for the cowards they are. “Not Today” is another standout track, a pop ballad with Romain declaring “I looked death straight in the eye and said ‘I’m not going to die today.”

It’s not all songs about suffering and facing adversity, though. About a third of the songs are about love, allowing Romain to indulge his romantic side. “I Am Rich In Love,” Fantasize,” and “Ray of Sunshine” are all pretty love songs, while on “Broken Heart” he teams up with Busy Signal to sing about the pain that love can bring.

The production is tasteful and restrained, finding middle ground between old school reggae and contemporary studio trickery. Romain’s voice does have the slight metallic tinge of Auto-Tune, but the effect is used much more sparingly than in most contemporary reggae. The occasional alto sax solo and acoustic guitar flourishes give some of the songs an adult contemporary (read: cheesy) feel, but Romain’s voice cuts through and neutralizes any sappiness.

In the end, “The System” is all about Romain’s voice. He can sing, holding the line between crooner and roots reggae. There is equal parts Gregory Isaacs and Marvin Gaye in his voice, and he imbues everything he sings with passion and sincerity. “The System” may not have as many uptempo tracks as his debut, but it is still a powerful second album by one of reggae’s rising stars.

Romain Virgo :: The System
7.5Overall Score