By Paul Ballard
Released August 9th, 2013 - Universal
The 2012 VNZMA finalist Jay Bulletproof returns with his new album#Listen. Any avid fan of his weekly Big Bad & Heavy show onAuckland's GeorgeFM will easily testify that Jay definitely has his finger on the pulse of UK and US bass culture. However, since the release of his highly acclaimed Dub Me Crazy album in 2011, much has changed within that landscape. Admittedly, this is Jay's first real 'album' and it is evident that he is embracing the changes by taking a cleaner, more personal stance to his production. Once again he is joined by a healthy array of guests and collaborators such as show cohort Dutty Ranks and vocal workouts from the likes of Pieter T, Tali, Yayneand Silva MC, to name just a few.
The thing that appears evident upon first listening is Jay's desire to take a step back, to take in a different view - clear of the static. The album still traverses between the 130-140bpm ranges, but this time he has explored other production avenues. By its very nature, the creation of a solid album presents a new set of challenges. The constant requirement to produce songs that work on equal footing both singularly and as a part of a cohesive collection is paramount, especially considering today's 'disposable dancefloor' culture.
Clearly Jay wanted #Listen to act as a metaphor for conscious awareness, more so than just an aural call to arms. Even the cover art depicting an angular wasteland of speakers and keyboards evokes the notion that things are simultaneously collapsing and growing. Examining issues on relationships, bullying and social upheaval within the lyrical context, Jay has attempted to bring an honest realism to the project. In some instances these extra layers work well.
On the 'radio-proof' One Night In Paris for example, Pieter T builds quirky similes between love and The Louvre over anthemic keys; in Heroine, a dedication to those suffering in the aftermath of the Canterbury earthquake, Yayne's haunting vocal twists and undulates, synchronous to the tectonic activity itself; and there's Remember, featuring the first of two outings by Silva MC. Although kicking off to a shaky start with a painfully contrived chorus line, the track is saved by the unmistakable rhymes from Rugged Tekniques who is on-point here. His brazen revelations of mis-spent youth and a life gone by are pitched with precision.
But not all of the tracks on #Listen are as appealing. In the anti-government opener 4 Million Voices, Jah Red Lion's auto-tuned reggae skew doesn't quite match the track's deep electronic premise, and the powerful sentiments of Tali's Lessons are marred by the choice to use a distractingly watered-down dubstep formula, instead of something more empathetic and thought-provoking. Additionally, the inclusion of his Revolutionremix for the John Butler Trio, although being a standout re-interpretation is very much part of a different storyline and feels somewhat out of place on this album.
While Jay also offers up some jazz-inspired excursions these are the weakest of the collection: the frenetic arrangements of I Got To Keep On Doing It sound one-dimensional and tedious; and the self-proclaimed tribute Baltimore is over-produced and begging for some sense of organic form, especially within the horn sections.
Not surprisingly, the two more prominent tracks on the album are quite simply Jay doing what he does best - moving everything aside and letting loose. In My Soul and the Swindle-esque It's a Funk Ting featuring Dutty Ranks, certainly roll out of the speakers with gritty determination. But both tracks are fairly linear in their construction, with no hidden surprises.
That seems to be the common irritation. Compared with his previous work, most of Jay's songs on #Listen never really get out of second gear and tend to meander safely to a conclusion. Even the UK-tinged closing track The Warning could have benefited from more punch, if only to match Silva MC's swagger.
Where 2011's Dub Me Crazy had an edgy, unpredictable aspect, #Listen instead moves within a different space, where the corners have been softened and things are definitely more 'cycle-friendly' with no tricky surfaces to navigate. This new offering has lost a lot of that spark and needed more risk-taking, perhaps an exploration of some middle ground between the two albums.
While he has probably done enough to keep his fans satisfied through summer, Jay's #Listen offers little we haven't heard before. Some of the more hardcore Bulletproof followers will be disappointed with the lack of heavy dancefloor bangers. Even though he once rode that wave, he may now have to paddle harder than he thought.
2.5 / 5