When I was young, reggae was a central part of pop-music—everyone had heard it, and although it wasn’t the most mainstream of musical interests, it was in the charts, and occasionally it produced a number one single in the UK. Then popular tastes changed, and reggae itself underwent some radical stylistic changes, morphing into dancehall music which bore about as much resemblance to 70s roots reggae as a Nicki Minaj cut does to one recorded by Marvin Gaye. Although reggae remains an enormously influential global style, its effect is probably felt by the UK mainstream mainly by way of its continuing influence on hip-hop and r’n’b production. I’d been feeling a yen to have a bit more reggae in my life a few months ago, and went hunting for current reggae artists on YouTube—I was surprised to discover a number of young pop singers that had gone back to the source, both in terms of vocal technique and production, recording tracks that take their inspiration from the lovers’ rock and roots reggae that first made Jamaican music a global phenomenon. Lila Iké is one of the best of them, and I’ve been enjoying her short album The Experience for a good while now.
Her vocals have more in common with classic soul than they do with the technically virtuosic and hyper-embellished style that dominates contemporary r’n’b; Iké has the kind of expressive contralto that music journalists refer to as ‘smoky’ when they can’t be bothered to think of the right word, and she deploys it with huge control and commitment. Her songs are mainly pop love songs, but their lyrics are elevated (to naive ears like mine, at least) by the patois in which she sings—I can’t really judge, but I’d guess she’s trying to sell records in the Caribbean and its diasporas, rather than the American market. There’s also a good deal of rootsy religiosity in songs like ‘Where I’m Coming From’ and ‘Thy Will’, and despite my generally irreligious character I’ve always been a sucker for that righteous vibe. The production covers a range of styles, but roots reggae features prominently, with earthy riddims like Dennis Brown’s ‘Promised Land’ (in ‘Second Chance’). The only downside to the album’s production (which is largely electronic), is that it’s heavily normalised, and although Iké is clearly a singer with a great deal of dynamic control, every note she sings here comes out at more or less the same volume. It would have made for a much more involving listen if the music had room to breathe, but overall, this is a deep grooving, soulful record, and after several months of repeated listening, it’s still putting a fresh smile on my face every time I hear it.