Review Summary: For all its brash sexuality and self-assured attitude, Dutty Rock is a remarkably tepid affair
The year is 2002, and the mainstream is being chewed up by heady hip hop, radio-friendly heavy rock and bouncy dance tracks- the lovelorn, saccharine elegies of the 90s traded for high spirits and excitable flamboyancy. Then, out of no where, an incredibly distinctive voice starts to drawl out of speakers all over the world. The voice pontificates upon the need to obtain a lighter for his blunt. It asserts dominance by demanding all ladies within the club environment get to work shaking their buttocks. He even begins to dictate the need for listeners to inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, as if they didn't already know. The borderline-indecipherable accent belonged to Sean Paul- Jamaican dancehall-reggae-pop toaster and general mainstay on the mainstream chart scene until late in the 2010s. Filling a niche that listeners didn't know needed filling, the artist put the airwaves into a tight chokehold with his hook-laden, infectious anthems and likeable Jamaican patois, aggressively collaborating with whoever would have him and tweaking his style into whatever pop-adjacent genre he was bandwagoning at the time. Following 'Breathe', his 2002 chart-topping match-up with Blu Cantrell, Paul's signature tone and style was set in stone, and Dutty Rock as an album very much explores the artist's more individual musical strengths prior to his inauguration into the generic dance style he peddled during the 2010s. The sound of the record features an eclectic assortment of stylistics, but has prominent base notes of dancehall and reggae, thereafter swathed with a colourful pop-centric production that foists the sound cleanly out of both genres and into a curious mainstream bastardation. The sound is still reggae in conceit, but the tempos are livelier, the tone less lethargic, and all subtlety is lost in the transition. Despite pandering to the popular crowd and suffering from a serious case of filler content though, Dutty Rock still has flashes of creativity and some genuinely entertaining moments; it's just unfortunate that these moments are scattered so offhandedly throughout such a muddled, unfocused record.
Only a light handful of tracks here conform to the reggae aesthetic in a true sense, such as 'I'm Still In Love With You', and 'Punkie'. These more earnest efforts actually do a decent job of conveying some semblance of genre convention; the former track especially has a very likeable central beat and vocal melody. Everywhere else, the reggae ideal is all but swallowed by faster paces and cleaner production, which creates a rousing but dissonant sense of dancehall-pop. There are a many modern artists, such as Damian Marley and Collie Buddz, who have managed to effectively integrate updated production values into a traditional reggae sound without the aesthetic curdling, but Sean Paul's pop-focused iteration loses a great deal of the reggae flavour by leaning too hard into modernisation. It is really only Paul's trademark mumble that cements the tracks together, as he caterwauls and bumbles along in the foreground alongside beats both electronic and actual, greasy synths and emulations of reggae instrumentation. As negative as this sounds, his tonality is actually quite likeable and, although monotone, displays a potent conviction as he matches the time signatures of the more sprightly numbers. The Jamaican MC stylistic works as a component facet, but too often the music lapses into bland and uninteresting, and too frequently comes across as a predictable remixing of reggae-lite conventions. The tinkling melodies found on 'Shout (Street Respect)', and 'Can You Do The Work' conspire against the lightly creative vocal melodies and choruses, as they feel underdeveloped and plodding in contrast to the lively delivery. The vacuous bass of 'Ganja Breed' and 'Jukin' Punny' display the same shortcomings, except with additional issue of the vocals being far less diverting, resulting in inoffensive but extremely bland soundscapes.
The 4-hit combo early in the album of 'Gimme The Light', 'Like Glue', 'Get Busy' and 'Baby Boy' (with Beyoncé) is the best uninterrupted slew of nostalgia Dutty Rock has to offer; a thread of variable quality and some interchangeable melodies, but still likeable throughout and capitalising on Sean Paul's main selling points- his infectious vocal lines, his rollicking rhythms, and love of sex and women. 'Baby Boy' subverts this somewhat as it is seen from the female perspective, but aside from this shift it is still the same thematic conceit. The cultural tinge on this song offsets the lyric content in a dynamic way, and even though the lyricism is less that stellar, it still inhabits a decadent, suggestive sonic experience. The remainder of this run is entertaining, with 'Get Busy' being a a seedy pop favourite and 'Gimme The Light' exemplifying the Rastafarian edge with its central theme and plucked string motif. The reggae-infused vocals on this track and throughout the album do a serviceable job of creating a slick, slightly daring atmosphere but the scattered sound of the music struggles to find a flow or cohesion within the album's progression. It rubberbands between slovenly sexuality, raucous party vibes and throwaway odes, and gives the impression that the direction selected for each track was an afterthought rather than an integral part of the production. Whether it be the more effervescent pop stylistics, the dancehall fusion or the R&B amalgamation, it consistently feels underdeveloped, without any real central vision beyond Sean Paul as the glue holding the package together.
Dutty Rock marked Sean Paul's breakthrough into the mainstream, and the varied nature of the overlong record hints at a certain wistful meandering. It exhibits a sound far less focused than is found on preceding album Stage One, or on follow-up release The Trinity, and has the feel of a compilation or mixtape in its messy structuring. The better moments on the collection are catchy and entertaining, encapsulating a unique mainstream artist of the era who had a lot to prove. The album struts confidently in its messiness, and its confluence of genre influence is at least unusual enough to retain interest for an amount of time. As an overall package, however, it lacks cohesion, and too many of the cuts serve as padding for the more choice, dynamic moments. Sean Paul's performance is engaging in his typical style, but the slickly produced yet underwhelming musicality and overload of tonal shifts undermine the experience in a dramatic way. The eyebrow-raising sexuality and bad-boy posturing are trite but charming nonetheless, and feel very appropriate to Sean Paul's persona, especially in light of his more recent, heavily sanitised output. Cohesion, fluidity and excitement are the aspects that Dutty Rock lacks the most- it feels extremely slick and has bags of personality, but the musical content itself leaves much to be desired; it's an awkward hodgepodge, with little more than cursory sense of watered-down, modernised reggae songwriting to offer.