Single Sourced: A review of Seh Selassie I by Ancient King
The very first time I took notice of Ancient King from St. Croix was way back in 2005, when his debut album, Conquering Sound [“Give me the chief of staff! Give me the battlefield marshal!”], provided the FIRE portion of I Grade Record’s ‘Fire – Earth – Wind’ promotion (which also featured albums from NiyoRah and Ras Army, respectively). That album, still his opus, carried pieces such as She’s So Awesome, Get the Best, St. Croix Run Red and others which weren’t so hyper-focused (Heading For Failure was on Conquering Sound as well – big tune).
His sophomore set, 2007’s Judgement would feature less in the way of diversity and what we saw was a gradual shift in Ancient King’s music, in retrospect (on the back of Judgement it reads “All songs itected and ivinely inspired by H.I.M.” It tells you all you need to know) (Judgement was probably a better album than it got credit for being in its time. Biggup Full Grown Records). In late 2012/early 2013 (released at the same time as Midnite’s Free Indeed if I recall correctly on Higher Bound Productions), he’d return with another album, perhaps, ahead of its time, the STUFFED Ethiopie. With seventeen selections, clocking in at over an hour and a quarter, Ethiopie had tons of things going on, but the CLEAR centralizing theme was espousing the greatness of Haile Selassie I [“One man stand out: The little short man from Ethiopie. The Tribe of Judah, Haile Selassie”].
During our hiatus, there was album #4, Swords Of Wisdom
for Adios Babylon. Quietly, Swords Of Wisdom
was a strong release. It featured Ancient King even more ‘stationary’ than we had previously seen him in terms of his lyrical direction. The vast majority of it was directly or indirectly about His Majesty and it was on Swords Of Wisdom
where I came to the thought that, although I thoroughly enjoyed it (and, listening to it now, it’s aged well. You can check it out and I may slap a review on it one day), I didn’t think that it was for everyone. I’ll go in more on this in just a second, but Ancient King has a very DIRECT style. Along with his virtually constant subject matter, his delivery is what it is and it doesn’t change much at all. Over the course of an entire album, well over an hour long (in the cases of both Swords Of Wisdom
and, as I mentioned Ethiopie
) (Conquering Sound
was also more than an hour but barely), I can see how that could wear on listeners and that is perfectly fine, it wore on me a bit but, like I said, I like being worn down. I enjoy it and part of my affection for Swords Of Wisdom
definitely exists in just how challenging of a release I found it to be.
So, given our ‘history’ together, now dating back nearly two decades, and what he had done in the immediate past, I would be damn interested in hearing a new album from Ancient King and look what the summer of 2022 has brought in. Released just a day before my forty-first birthday is the latest and fifth album from Ancient King, Seh Selassie I, through the St. Croix based Ras Elyment Records. The label is probably best known, as of late, for its 2020 release The Spirit Of Standing Up from Akae Beka (which I will CERTAINLY get around to reviewing one day), but actually has a very RICH and interesting musical history beyond that. Lyndon ‘Ras L’ Williams, a former member of the Midnite band, heads Ras Elyment Records and he’s produced several albums for the pioneering Virgin Islands staple including the likes of Maschaana, Thru & True and Full Cup. So, if you weren’t familiar with their name, if you’ve read this far into a review, you probably do know the work of Ras Elyment’s. Personally, when I noticed who had vibed Seh Selassie I, it made it an even more intriguing project for me and I looked at it as, potentially, a very nice musical birthday gift for myself.
EVENTUALLY that is exactly what it turned out to be after, deliciously, requiring quite a bit of work from my end (not a problem for me!). Seh Selassie I presents a delectable test of a listen and, for those of willing to ‘endure’, what lies beneath is a very solid — ULTRA SPECIFIC — experience. An immediate credit goes to Ancient King, Ras L and whosoever else may’ve been in the deciding charge of this album as it begins with, easily, one of the most poignant intros that I have heard in a…. in a ever, Haile Selassie I [The Responsibility of Youth], which features a clip from a speech of His Majesty where he speaks on how great the role that the youth plays in Africa is.
The youth of Africa must show to the world that they are
determined to use the best of their knowledge to bring about
continuous progress and the common goal of unity and
greatness as a tangible objective of the African Peoples.
The intro sets the stage for the first musical track we get, fittingly, Youth. When I first heard this one (and still up until now), it immediately reminded me of an old song from Junior Kelly by the name of Youth Dem Nah Cool, in terms of its sound (the directions are more dissimilar with Kelly’s piece being a bit darker). I heard it all over it. Despite clocking in at seven seconds south of five minutes in length, Youth is but the FIFTH longest offering on Seh Selassie I and, clearly, AK had some things to get off his chest and he makes the most of the opportunity. Though it does come off as somewhat cluttered, Youth is excellent as the chanter speaks on many things, all revolving around how crucial it is for the young people of the world follow the teachings of His Imperial Majesty [“That mask you wearing is not a mineral. It’s a covering, defeating the purpose of inhaling oxygen that heal. I stand by the Irator, Who say let the food be your medicine, in from the green field. ONLY WHAT HAILE SELASSIE MADE IS A MEAL”].
Following Youth, the very first sound heard on the next entry up, Power of The Trinity, is a baby crying. It eventually blossoms into another track which could probably be described as a little crowded but (and I’ll probably stop saying that now and come back to it in concluding), again, if you sift your way through it all, what lies beneath is full worth the journey to digging it up. Exactly what you will find down there is a foundation geared towards the power of FAMILY and unity [“Every pregnancy a fi di Trinity represent His Imperial Majesty – mother, father and child”]. AK does take it in a few different directions somewhat (specifically, he deals with things such as maturation and properly teaching things to your children and setting a good example) but what he does here continues to build wonderfully on the theme set by the intro and Youth.
If you’re at all like me, then the very first thing you’ll notice about Igziabeher Prayer is going to be that FILTHY riddim backing it. That thing is so nice! It makes for a perfect, edgy seat and, for his part, Ancient Kings builds upon it with as comprehensive of a praising piece that I’ve heard in a very long time. I hear certain textures of an artist who I’m almost surprised that I haven’t mentioned yet and I will now save for closing and that downright mystical individual would wholly approve of Igziabeher Prayer where AK attempts to simultaneously give honour to His Majesty and explain why it is so important to do so within a more tangible framing. I may be the only person to say this (that’s fine. I’m used to it) but, at least for me, this one hits a higher level at around three minutes into it (2:50 to be more exact). AK becomes locked in (coincidentally he says the word “synchronized” during the moment) and the track grabs him. It continues on and I hear some variations in that riddim and it soars! Igziabeher Prayer is MAMMOTH but you’ll only know this if you’re willing to work on it.
And, at the risk of this paragraph being entirely too long (what I care??), I’ll also mention the title track here because of the interesting contrast it provides in sound to the selection ahead of it. Obviously the subject matter is the same (it’s the same on the rest of the songs as well) and the delivery is pretty much the same (….”it’s the same on the rest of the songs as well”), but the tempo and everything else is more laidback. This track which is overwhelmed (and largely ignored by Ancient King – I don’t even know if he could hear it. It literally sounds like he did his lyrics without any riddim and then they placed it behind him and made the song because he does not acknowledge its melody at all) is beautiful from what I can tell with its key-heavy appeal, but it’s just back there as AK, once again, opens his heart and mind for His Majesty.
There is a song later on “Seh Selassie I” which, for me, is a PERFECT barometer in regards to how someone may feel about the rest of the album. Because of that, if you aren’t a more seasoned listener to Ancient King’s music, I would recommend that you skip to the second track and just spend the next ten minutes listening to it a couple of times. If you cannot appreciate King Earthday Hyms at all then the balance of this release probably won’t do much for you either (and it probably won’t be the final time I say that about one of these songs). I find this piece to be such a NATURAL capture of what AK does. Obviously he wrote it on His Majesty’s earthday in 2020 and… he basically just starts talking and what happened, happened.
July 23rd 2020, today is the King Day
Ises to His Majesty, plenty
This day He was born in Ejersa Goro in Ethiopie
His Majesty World Saviour was born according to a prophecy.
It is such an aggressive display and though not quite as melody-oblivious as the title track (and the riddim is very nice, actually), it’s also not going get a lot of people moving from being so dynamic. It’s just the pouring of the mind and the emotions from Ancient King which, again, happens so often here but this instance struck me as being SO wholly characteristic and emblematic of what he does. I saw a title, Tribute, and I had no reason to think that it wasn’t a “tribute” to his majesty… like every other song on the album but I was surprised and pleasantly so to hear the biblical first spoken words here which reveal that, although it sort of is like the other songs here, it is also a bit more specific.
This is the number of the Kesbel
The principal part of the oath which The Most High, Selassie I dwelleth in glory
Reveal to The Holy Ones, it name is BEKA.
Actually, Tribute is in honour of the great Vaughn Benjamin. To my knowledge, Benjamin and AK were very good friends with the Akae Beka/Midnite frontman appearing on the aforementioned Conquering Sound [“With faith, courage and a just cause, David slew Goliath and put him pon pause”] and Ancient King subsequently returning the favour with multiple appearances on the notorious To Mene in 2009 (and you’ll find a few more tunes that they did together as well). To the surprise of absolutely no one at all, Ancient King finds the greatest accomplishment of his friend in being such a powerful LOYAL soldier to His Majesty and he’s right: Musically speaking there may’ve never been a more focused and determined individual in glorifying Rastafari than Benjamin. There have been other songs like this, most notably one coming from Danny I but, for me, as I’ve said in the past, because Benjamin left us with so much work to be done (that will NEVER be done), I feel that he’s still with us. He will outlive us all. Still, EASILY, Tribute is one of the most powerful selections you on the Seh Selassie I and one which I was very happy to see present.
Right between Tribute and King Earthday Hymns is another big winner from the album, Red Gold & Green. In as much as he can, Ancient King kind of takes this one in a personal direction as he talks about being a youth and seeing Rastafari and the impression that it made on him and how it has reverberated throughout his life [“From mi likkle and ah grow certain thing mi never know, seen? Mi used to always sight di Rastaman wid red, gold and green: Lion Of Judah anytime dem pose up pon di scene. I never really know what it mean. Now mi grow big and find out what it mean”]. Eventually the track goes in the same direction as much of the album (although slightly more specifically in this case), but Red Gold & Green is one of the very best you’ll find here and largely due to the more directly personal imprint Ancient King places in it.
Ancient King deals with the topic of faithfulness and loyalty more in-depth on another of the bigger winners on Seh Selassie I, Give Up Your Soul. Again, I’d be very shocked if you heard someone else tell you this, but when I first heard Give Up Your Soul, I immediately began to sing a tune in my head and after finally remembering what the chorus was, I nailed it down to Live What U Talk [“and talk what you liiiiive. Praise The Most High and think positive”] (NOT, incidentally, King Of Your Soul by Norris Man, which is one of the greatest songs of all time) by the great Pressure Busspipe (now wouldn’t those two make for a big combination???). This one will surely go down as a personal favourite of mine and I’m going to go ahead and (SELFISHLY, but I’m going to tell you why) call it the single best song on this album (with a huge respect to Igziabeher Prayah). An outstanding, yet almost understated, riddim backs AK who is in a devastating lyrical form, pinnacling on the second verse where he VICIOUSLY attacks my emotions. ME!
Lean not onto your own misunderstanding
Lean onto Haile Selassie I knowledge and wisdom and HIS kingly standing
Overstanding HIS whim, that will make it right to HIM-
Perpetually the living reservoir
Come and drink from HIM, you will never thirst again
Hey, drink from the living spring
Assimilate, adapt, emulate
KALONJI TELL DEM SELASSIE I TEACH I EVERYTHING!
His speeches is salvation of the table of the soul
World Saviour, history recall
Haile Selassie save the world!
Lo, behold, from 1935 to 1941
Did you catch that??!
KALONJI TELL DEM SELASSIE I TEACH EVERYTHING!
Not only does AK reference my favourite artist he references the title track from an album which, although not regarded as one of his strongest, I absolutely ADORE, Rastafari Teach I Everything. It is a “modern classic” for me (and if only for me, that is just fine) and, given what he says here, especially, I’m assuming that it also registers with Ancient King in a similar way. In His Law does not struggle at all in keeping the vibes high following Give Up Your Soul, although it may take you a few spins through to realize it. I would tell you to maybe focus more on the latter portion of In His Law where it really hits its full stride where the artist delivers a stirring message about the wonders of following the LAW of His Majesty.
I was looking forward to hearing what was the direction of Chess Board given its title and although that question is answered fairly quickly on (it’s about the struggle between evil and righteousness), it isn’t terrible important in my opinion throughout the song. I did not love this one, and not because it’s bad or lacking to any degree, but I think that what happened is that I got my hopes up in hearing something potentially special and that didn’t manifest at all. Instead Chess Board is fairly similar to much of what you’re going to experience throughout this set, but it isn’t exceptional in any way in my opinion (though the riddim is pretty close). Still, what I will say on its behalf is that Chess Board is that if you enjoy the most of the material on this release, you will have no problem with it – I just wish they’d done more with it.
The final two selections really do a great job of tying things all together and sending us out on a very high note. The first, Selassie I Praises is more of exactly what you’ve come to expect, but it is a sensational song. Here, Ancient King expresses a disbelief (and borderline shock) at how so many people are not thankful for what The Almighty has done for us all [“Look at all of the wonderful things Selassie I done for all of us and you go let the praises escape your heart?”]. Finally is Ultimate Challenge which I am going to call the changeup for Seh Selassie I for no other reason than the fact that it has a pronounced backing singer who is VI veteran Cherise King whose work you have likely come across at some point without actually realizing it. She has a delightful voice and the contrast it provides with Ancient King’s coarse and largely unrefined delivery (and I mean that in a good way) is an extremely interesting listen.
The duo puts in a unique (only in reference to the rest of the album) (and only in terms of the sound, its subject is…. well, you know what it’s about) display – one largely centered about improving oneself in any possible way in order to live up to a standard (a challenge!) set forth by the heavens. In retrospect, this tune was probably the first I heard from Seh Selassie I as it originally reached way back in late 2019 and, clearly, the project that they were building to surround it turned out to be quite strong, like the early single (it’s also interesting, although not surprising, that they chose likely the most dynamic piece here as its first shot to the masses).
Okay, there’re two things (which will probably turn into three) (….will certainly turn into three) I want to mention in regards to this album and Ancient King as an artist. The first is one which I alluded to several times: A fair critique of Seh Selassie I would be to say that it is kind of messy. There’re phrases that people like me use to describe certain musical moments and one of them would be to say something like ‘he’s very passionate’ or ‘he is incapable of controlling his emotions’ – you get the point, something like that. I would use those to describe AK (and surely did at some point during this review), but if you are someone who does not have a lot of experience in listening to his work, I can very well see how you will walk away thinking that the delivery here is kind of messy and cluttered together. It can overwhelming, as I said, and the work of digging through it certainly isn’t for everyone.
The second thing I want to bring up is the “downright mystical individual” I also mentioned. Ancient King, at least to me, often sounds somewhat like Sabbattical Ahdah. I’m not going to even get my hopes up by researching what Ahdah has been up to lately (last time I did that I found mention of an album which never arrived), but the two are similar to my ears. Sabbattical Ahdah may have a greater command of melody (or maybe he just gives an actual damn about the riddims he uses more frequently than Ancient King does) and I also hear, loosely, echoes of Vaughn Benjamin within both. I also want to say (told you I would!) that the production on Seh Selassie I while not what I would call STELLAR, is something more than solid throughout. The tracks that they provide Ancient King (whether HE, himself, actually knows it or not) are very good and I’d be interested in hearing others on them as well…. maybe someone like Sabbattical Ahdah, for example.
Overall, just in case I haven’t made it crystal clear: Seh Selassie I isn’t for everyone. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that if you had to read a review as long as this one in order to figure out if it is for you, then you’re probably not going to like it. Ancient King’s style is one which is very specific. I can’t imagine it growing on you to any degree (unless you’re a younger person and I probably would not have enjoyed this music if I were in my twenties for example). On top of that, I don’t think either he or Ras Elyment Records had/have any inclinations in presenting it in a way that would make it more appealing to a wider audience:: They made it for a more ‘weathered’ type of listener. HOWEVER, with that being said, if you are that more grizzled and well experienced type of fan, to you, I present a GEM.
Seh Selassie I is the finest piece of work Ancient King has produced since Conquering Sound, without question. What it may lack in sonic appeal (although you will find some of that), it will make up for in a giant chunk of consistency. Seh Selassie I hits a certain level immediately and it just does not dip below it, not one time. There’s also a nice level of COMFORT that it brings as well. This is an album about glorifying His Imperial Majesty. Yes, you’ve probably hundreds of them with a similar foundation and will likely hear a few hundred more, but with Ancient King’s almost stunning level of refusal to detour from that route for an even a MOMENT, there’s something that his work has that not too many others does – and whatever it is, it’s rarely sounded this good.