Kingdom In Transition: A review of Rise Up by Sizzla Kalonji
Sizzla Kalonji now brings forth the latest creation in the current stage of his incomparable career for, again, Kalonji Music Production, Rise Up. This new album was interesting even ahead of its release as it has seemingly flown beneath the proverbial radar, unlike the much discussed 2021 set On A High. Rise Up just kind of popped up one day (although, given the timing, I can’t say that I was really surprised by it being in the offering). When I first got a look at it and took in the tracklist and some of the other aspects of it (such as the fact that it was to be released on the day before the birth of His Imperial Majesty), I got a fairly good feeling about this one.
Now five sets in, I think that we can begin to have the discussion of what exactly is the sound of Kalonji Music Production: It’s varied as hell. From Acoustic Sounds, which was exactly what you think it was, to Black Man Rule Africa — despite its title (and cover), a Hip-Hop album for the most part — through to Million Times, an album full of love songs and up to On A High which went in several directions – it’s become apparent that Sizzla’s work on KMP is highly unpredictable. If you’re like me (and you just might be considering where you choose to spend your time), you’re sitting around waiting on that next HAMMER of a release which is completely pure Reggae genius from Kalonji and I’m still confident that we will get it, but I’m becoming increasingly convinced that when/if it does manifest, it will not come via KMP (Bread Back seems the likeliest of sources, although, given KMP’s ‘spontaneity’, the album I’m talking about is probably being recorded as I type this). However, with that being said, these albums are not without value and, by its end, Rise Up proves itself to be not only a compelling release in many ways, but PROBABLY the single best album Sizzla has done for himself thus far. Let’s get into it.
Although, as I alluded to, Rise Up is surely not that Reggae-heavy stunner that I’ve been waiting to hear from Sizzla in recent years and it is quite musically diverse, it isn’t…. sickeningly so. What I mean is that, if you go into his giant catalogue, you’ll find full albums of material which’re just downright strange (and not all of even those’re bad, actually, although probably none of them are favourites of mine). At least for the moment, I’m not comfortable putting Rise Up amongst them just yet. It is closer to center and at no point (…okay, only at one point) did I find myself annoyed by the vibes of the album really. That would certainly include our chilled opener, the praise-ful Rastafari I. I don’t know how precisely to categorize this song in terms of its genre, but if you are a fan of more traditional Roots Reggae music, whatever Rastafari I is won’t bother you. You might actually grow to enjoy it as I have to a degree. The tune does intensify and shift throughout but it never becomes what I call ‘harsh’ at all and, instead, is a solid moment of praise and prayer to get things started (and it isn’t a bad lyrical effort either) (more on that later).
When your mind is free and your soul is blessed
No inequity can let you be unrest
Hail His Majesty, King Selassie I, Mount Zion, yes
The first single (I THINK) from Rise Up, We Pray, comes in next and I have to say that while I did not think much at all of this one the very first time I heard it, it’s spent the last two or three weeks or so growing on me significantly. I’m thinking that what I reacted to here was both the vibes and the set of circumstances surrounding We Pray. It was the first taste I had from the forthcoming album and, as I said, Sizzla’s work for his own label has always been very diverse and here I was (literally in this exact same spot) (I’m standing up now though, I would have been sitting down) (because I know you are DYING for this information) eagerly anticipating a big Reggae album and this is another predictably unpredictable sound (it’s kind of an R&B-ish sounding sound, but it has electric elements to it as well). I was disappointed in what it wasn’t, but judging it based on what it IS, We Pray isn’t bad at all. It is unique, with its ‘progressive’ chanting sound, but at its core is a very poignant message advocating the power of prayer and the role it can play in life.
The most immediate thing you’ll notice, obviously, is the sound, but I’ll tell you that if you can manage to sift through it, you may be pleasantly surprised by what lies beneath. In terms of that sonic appeal (or lack thereof, depending on your perspective), perhaps I can also say the same for When It’s Gonna Stop although it is a better track than We Pray in my opinion. The nature of its sound is somewhat uncharacteristic, but the composition is one very familiar to fans.
I don’t know when they’re gonna stop
They’re eradicating and they’re acting as if they’re not
I don’t know when they’re change
And stop doing things to hurt the people, they’re so strange
I don’t know when they’re gonna realize –
And open up their eyes
Material things are but just disguise
I don’t know when they’re gonna know themselves
They’re quick to bite the hand that offered help
Living in the ghetto ain’t easy, believe me
People does a lot of crazy stuff just to achieve, yea
Families against families
Friends killing friends
PEOPLE DOING EVIL, SAY IT’S JUSTIFIED TO THEM
Hey and those who cause it disappear
Leaving us in turmoil, they don’t care
Then we, the people, acting blind because of fear-
While they do the same thing every year
When It’s Gonna Stop is one of the stronger selections on Rise Up in my opinion and a potential sleeper of a tune, should it get an opportunity to shine. IF it is behind (and it might not be), the tune chasing When It’s Gonna Stop here, Know Your Friends, isn’t back there very far at all. This one deals with (obviously) those who we spend our time with [“Can’t trust certain people. ‘Wah mek yuh seh dat?’ Whole heap a reason”] and how who those people are can be some of the most important people in your life, for better or for worse. I like how this one isn’t completely BLEAK and desolate. You could even make the case that it’s on the happy side at times [“Jah’s gonna bless you when the time’s right. Be happy and you live a fine life”] but however you feel about its tone, Know Your Friends is a pretty solid tune.
You will also find So Beautiful in the first half of Rise Up and, since I’m here, I’m going to also go ahead and mention the later piece, Crush on You. Though neither rank as anywhere near my favourites on this release, the first of them isn’t a complete miss. I’ve never really enjoyed that kind of high pitched chanting Sizzla is prone to do (particularly on love songs), but I’ve heard it utilized far worse than it is during So Beautiful. Crush on You, on the other hand, just is not for me in any way. It isn’t completely HORRIBLE either (may not be too far from it though), but it fails to make any real positive impact on me at all, though I surely am not its target audience. Both tunes would have found a more fitting home on the aforementioned Million Times album, but I’m not surprised that Rise Up features at least one such drop (only one would have been better suited here, perhaps).
The second half of this release is where its biggest firepower is found. Of the five tunes I’ve yet to tell you about, an appetizing FOUR of them are Reggae songs and two or three of those are downright towering. The song that sticks out from the pack, in its sound, Hard Ears
, is slightly better than I originally gave it credit for being although I still can’t say that I enjoy it. It’s kind of unusual at times where Kalonji is almost having a conversation with himself and the song has this Hip-Hop vibes to it (again, not my favourite) and, by its end, Hard Ears
… is just kind of weird. He does definitely say some pertinent things (he always does), but I’m thinking that if it does find an audience it does in the crowd who get here in search of something different from what they typically listen to.
When I initially listened through Rise Up and I got to Dem a Watch We it made me smile! It gave me what I was looking and hoping for from the beginning – a most familiar and DELICIOUS sound. The old school Reggae licked tune is candy to my ears and it comes in like a vibe. I don’t think Sizzla spent a great deal of time in planning it out, I think he heard the riddim and just put something together in his head on the spot. What he ended up with was damn impressive:
No more nonsense
Babylon ah do some things weh no make no damn sense
Unuh rob Black people,
You no got no conscience
Speaking about its delivery – I hear glimpses in Dem a Watch We of the artist at or near his best and, as I’ve said in the past, Sizzla is my all-time favourite, so such moments are divine to my ears. Though big in vibes, Jamaica No Problem is absolutely tiny! It’s two and a half minutes long and by the time it truly hits its stride, it’s done! It does leave an impression (that you want to hear more of it) [“Seh wi nah worry bout nothing, alright. WI NO PRAISE VANITY, WI PRAISE LIFE. Cause wi know things tough and sufferation rough, but wi still nah give up the fight”] but it’s almost like going for a run and when you loosen up, you stop. Typically I don’t have such critiques for an individual song, but I think he may’ve had something special on his hands with this one — the sonic appeal on Jamaica No Problem is very strong — but it could have been played out more for me (even if you just let the riddim play a bit more) (something! DAMN!).
A tune which does get a minute to go (literally, it’s fifty-nine seconds longer than Jamaica No Problem) and works it to near perfection is the highest peak found on Rise Up to my ears, the DAZZLING Praises to Selassie. I want to make this point because it stands out excellently from what I just spoke about: At around two minutes and twenty-five seconds into it (when Jamaica No Problem was winding down), the riddim on Praises to Selassie alters itself just a bit. I lack the musical knowledge to explain what it is, but you will notice it CLEARLY and it is LOVELY! The riddim is the single finest on this release and Kalonji is in a fine lyrical form as well. They do exist (I’ve already told you about two of them at the beginning of this review), but albums on which Praise to Selassie is NOT a standout are extremely few and far between. Sizzla produces a MASTERFUL tribute to His Imperial Majesty which, fittingly, reigns supreme on this project.
Finally, is another solid Reggae song in Nuh Idle, finding itself on its front-foot almost immediately. It is a fairly aggressive song focusing on everyone (especially younger people) finding proper things to occupy our time. I liked this one from the very first listen, but I ended up having it on repeat while doing something else besides this review and ended up, literally, listening to it maybe a dozen or so times. Nuh Idle is excellent. Sizzla comes off as attempting to instill a PRIDE in the masses in the role that we all play in making the world what it is and just how awful it is to be without purpose [“Pagans hate what dem wah dem caan have. YOU NUH WORK, BUT YOU WAAN GRAB!”] and he does so across a riddim not to be missed! What a gorgeous piece of music on that tune!
Two things I want to mention about Rise Up
: The first just occurred to me while thinking about Jamaica No Problem
. If you look at all of the albums Sizzla has done for Kalonji Music Production, it seems as if he’s found a very comfortable space. While the actual music on them may [does] vary from project to project (or from song to song), four of the five releases have either twelve or thirteen songs and come in at thirty-eight (Rise Up
) and forty-four and a half (Black Man Rule Africa
). The exception to both of those is Acoustic Sounds
, the oldest of the lot which was nearly fifty-two minutes spread over fifteen tracks. So apparently he’s identified what’s working for him, though I do wish he had put another song on this one, especially if it were along the lines of several of the later efforts on Rise Up
The other thing that I noticed here and it’s probably redundant when dealing with Sizzla’s music but I’ll say it anyway: I found myself, if not consistently, EXTREMELY impressed in streaks by this album lyrically. It isn’t anywhere near his most complex piece of work (that distinction may belong to Royal Son Of Ethiopia off the top of my head), but Rise Up surely ranks as one of Sizzla’s best WRITTEN recent releases.
Overall, it’s also his best album altogether for Kalonji Music Production thus far in my opinion (for some reason I now find myself listening a lot to an old, random, Sizzla album called Red Alert
, and I am LOVING it!) [“Good herbs mi haffi bun, preserve mi like di sun!”] (BOOM!) and probably a little better than I thought when I started this review, as well. I’m thinking that I won’t be alone in saying that because I believe a lot of longtime Sizzla fans will come to Rise Up
and walk away thinking that it was more than they expected. I’m not (AT ALL) trying to say that it is anywhere near his best but, as I said, you will not find a better product of his on his own label up to now.
What sets Rise Up apart from the rest is that, although it definitely is varied musically, Reggae fans such as You and I will be more than capable of piecing together enough strong COMFORTABLE vibes along with the album’s actual strongest work. Last year, I said that he was “warming up” after On A High and that the next HUGE moment wasn’t very far away. Rise Up isn’t that from but it is a solid statement that Sizzla Kalonji, even at this stage of his career, is still steadily at work and CLEARLY progressing.