For most Americans without roots in Jamaica, dancehall reggae can be grouped into two categories: “Stuff We’ve Never Heard Of” and “One-Hit Wonders We Dance To At Weddings.” We can thank the early 90s for easing us into the club-friendly sound with tracks like Chaka Demus and Pliers’ “Murder She Wrote” and Shaggy’s “Boombastic,” but by the close of the millennium, catchy riddims had been largely replaced by heartthrob boy bands and mini-divas.
When Sean Paul blazed onto the scene in 2000, there were few and forgettable competitors in the dancehall/reggae market that were household names. Collaborating early in his career with Billboard vets Beyoncé and Blu Cantrell, his presence was met with generally good reception. Sean Paul has evolved before us. Stage One was energetic and scattered; Dutty Rock, playful and sexy. The Trinity did a good job of combining both ends of the spectrum while considerably widening his audience.
If there’s anything Sean Paul will be remembered for, it’ll be his status as the training wheels for America’s ride with dancehall. Perhaps hinting at his own refinement in the title itself, Paul’s fourth album in a decade, “Imperial Blaze,” is, surprisingly, his most tame release.
Of Imperial Blaze’s namesake, Paul claims “I’m not the king. I’m the fire, I’m the flame, I’m the energy.” This is indisputable– If you’ve ever seen Sean Paul perform live, the energy of the entire show is sexually charged. He is at the center of a wild dance party that does not let up from start to finish. Bearing that in mind, Paul’s obsession with the female form dominates the lyrics as usual, but that’s what drives “Imperial Blaze,” period.
Previously, Paul had dabbled in politics, legalization, wine, women and song. Little has changed with Paul’s subject matter. In fact, he only seems to focus on one… “She Want Me,” “She Wanna Be Down,” “I Know U Like It,” and “Now That I’ve Got Your Love” do not waste time with fancy metaphors. “Daddy’s Home” borders on creepily romantic and “Birthday Suit” is quite literally a three and a half minute ode to the naked feminine mystique.
Contrary to earlier reports of Paul’s wish to confront more serious issues on this release, this release can’t seem to figure out that— hey, eyes up here, thank you very much.
Despite what may have gotten lost in translation, there is a definite sense of restraint and reflection in Paul’s seemingly controlled heat, at least in terms of the beats. Tracks like “Pepperpot” “Straight from My Heart” and “Agarra Mi Mano” are more slow dance ballads than typical booty-shaking instant chart-toppers. There are only a few tracks reminiscent of Paul’s earlier upbeat hits.
“Private Party,” for example, is not just a clever title. The Eastern-tinged loop and quick pacing of the beat is reminiscent of “Stage One’s” vigor. “Don’t Tease Me” still seems well-behaved in comparison to “Give It Up To Me” while “Press It Up” is the album’s lackluster “Gimme the Light.” Sean Paul has all the suaveness required to ensure sexy ladies “Shake That Thing” like his on-stage dancers do, so what is it that this album lacks?
There’s a lot “Imperial Blaze” can offer for people that like familiarity. Much of it is low-key and relaxing as opposed to an upbeat cleaning soundtrack (hey, to each their own). On the whole, the album’s feel comes off a lot like Shaggy’s Hot Shot, but without the staying power.
For those craving a new spark, “Imperial Blaze” will fizzle out. Sean Paul doesn’t go beyond or break any new ground on this release. They’re decent, typical Sean Paul tracks. It’s got the feel of an entire album of B-sides, with no tracks in particular truly setting themselves apart.
Fans can only hope that this unremarkable banality is just to tide us over while the hottest material just starts to kindle.