The world of dancehall appeared beset by tragedy and controversy this year, with its highest-profile singer, Vybz Kartel, arrested and charged with two murders. But the music didn't stop. Dancehall songs tell stories about street life, often using harsh language to describe the action. But it's also music for a party — the studio-produced beats mean to make you move — and its singers often have flamboyant personalities, at least on record.
The five best dancehall songs of the year were made by very different musicians. This year Mavado, with his singular voice, came into his own, releasing well-crafted hit after well-crafted hit. Young star Laza Morgan and veteran I-Octane side-stepped into the spotlight. Kartel's scandal didn't keep his catchy anthems away from people's ears, and Popcaan did not linger in his mentor's shadow.
The Top 5 Dancehall Tracks of 2011
This was the year of Mavado. The artist with the most compelling voice in dancehall released more than half a dozen of his best tunes yet, stole the show at Reggae Sumfest — Jamaica's be-all-and-end-all summer reggae festival — and then capped it all off by getting signed to DJ Khaled's We the Best label, which will release his much-anticipated third album next year. The undeniably catchy "Delilah" laces those beguilingly wailing vocals over an electro-pop beat by Jamaica's wunderkind producer, 21-year-old Stephen McGregor. The masterful hit also earned an innovative dubstep remix from the ever Jamaica-endorsing Diplo.
It should have been 2011's summertime dancehall crossover anthem, courtesy of the genre's persistently popular, ceaselessly controversial headline-stealer. There's nothing controversial about "Summer Time," though, which explains its ironic appeal: Hear the lyrically explicit artist — known for repping a hardcore 'hood known as "Gaza" — deliver a hyper-catchy, tourist-board-friendly jingle about good old summer fun in the tropics. The words reference pool parties in lavish uptown Kingston and beach-side fetes in Negril; the piano-driven beat is suitably playful. Don't be surprised if Hot 97 puts this on rotation a little late — but in time for summer 2012.
The protégé almost upstaged the boss in this one. Vybz Kartel discovered Popcaan at a party and signed him immediately to his Portmore Empire label, and the young DJ's frisky comic style — the name suggests a cartoon character, which is apt — quickly found fans. This, his biggest hit, shares a riddim with Kartel's "Summer Time" and is an equally flawless party jam from its first "yaaaaow!"
Memo to Sean Kingston: Keep an eye on Laza Morgan. The youngest member of the Morgan family — his father is musician Denroy Morgan, while his siblings comprise the veteran reggae band Morgan Heritage — has Kingston's style on lock, pulling off both Yardie and Yankee with aplomb. He can rap, DJ, sing and singjay. Elektra Records will release his debut album in 2012, and if "One by One" is any indication, it'll be a masterful work of dancehall pop. The singsong tune is melodically catchy, dance-floor-ready and crowned by a delectably scandalous cameo from Mavado, in uber-sexy mode.
He was 2011's buzzworthy newcomer: a Rastafarian DJ in the vein of Sizzla or Capleton, comfortable moving from conscious music to hardcore dancehall and back again. Although he does not partake, his tune is his homage to the high grade, showcasing I-Octane's signature style: rapid-fire rhyming skills, haunting vocals and simple, singalong hooks.