As Jamaica's reigning DJ/rapper, Buju Banton topped the reggae charts for more than two years with his genre-twisting third album, 1995's "Til Shiloh." Transformed from the X-rated rudebwoy who gained notoriety for his controversial anti-gay tune, "Boom Bye-Bye," Banton sprouted dreads, became a Rasta man and pumped positive, spiritually motivated messages into his dancehall songs.
Although he wasn't the first to fuse rough dancehall rhythms with the gentler sensibilities and harmonies of roots reggae -- Tony Rebel, Cocoa Tea and, most sweetly, the late Garnett Silk have all carved out careers with this technique -- no one has come close to Banton's star power or record sales. Earning more No. 1 singles than any other reggae artist in Jamaica (including Bob Marley), Banton has amassed a following in much the same way that the reggae legend did -- by drawing on his background as a poor street youth and turning it into a voice for the oppressed all over the world. Establishing himself as an international star, Banton has guided the whole reggae genre toward a more uplifting direction.
Banton's newest release, "Inna Heights," reinforces his rare ability to showcase many of reggae's variations -- dancehall, roots and vintage ska -- on one cohesive album. With his trademark sandpaper-coarse voice, Banton offers his thoughts on fame and fortune, interspersing them between nuanced, soulful singing.
It has always been dancehall riddims that couch Banton's rough-hewn bass the best, whether it's the spiraling beat of "African Pride," where Banton teaches and moves hips, or the wicked dancehall cut "Love Dem Bad," where he pours his scratchy rhymes all over the grinding beat as guest DJ Red Rat provides contrast with high, urgent vocals.
The swaying lovers' rock of "Cry No More" breaks new ground as Banton's gruff vocal details a remorseful husband apologizing for his womanizing : "Ego got the best of me/chasing every beautiful woman I see/in the end what's my reward/I brought unhappiness in a mi yard." Such a confession is unheard of for a Rasta man, but Banton manages it with sincerity and style.
It's fitting that "Inna Heights" opens and ends with chanted, a cappella tunes that capture the essence of Banton's music. The first track, "Our Father in Zion," while little more than a few verses taken from "The Lord's Prayer," is pure and haunting, as Banton's voice bellows with intense spiritual feeling. The last, "Circumstances," is equally compelling, but with a rawness that echoes its topic of urban violence: "Circumstances made me what I am/was I born a violent man/circumstances made me what I am/everyone should understand."