By Jacob Katel
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His controlled falsetto has more in common with veteran Jamaican singers Pat Kelly and Junior Murvin than with Sizzla or Luciano, the latter whose styles constitute the current reggae vocal paradigm; while his lyrics -- eschewing the repetitive one-love rhymes and ganja glorification that has dulled the diversity of roots music -- sparkle with the subtleties that characterize great storytelling. With only three singles released in the past year, I Wayne has emerged from obscurity to become one of Jamaican music's hottest commodities.
The catalyst for the singer's meteoric ascent is "Can't Satisfy Her," a gritty, cleverly told tale of a young woman who began "strip dancing before she reached eleven," became a prostitute, and is near death due to an unspecified STD. I Wayne's clear, high-pitched vocals glide over a jaunty remake of the Father Jungle Rock riddim, and he chants a very effective although somewhat condemning chorus: "One man can't satisfy her, she needs more wood for the fire/Flames and fire burn the sex seller and buyer."
The song's massive popularity has assisted in the revival of live one-drop (traditional reggae) riddims and constructive, Rastafari-influenced verse on the Jamaican charts after years of dominance by dancehall's X-rated and violent imagery and frenetic computer-generated beats. In an even farther-reaching development, "Can't Satisfy Her" is now in regular rotation at several urban stations, including NYC's influential Hot 97 (WQHT-FM 97.1). According to representatives at VP Records, which is scheduled to release I Wayne's debut album this summer, "Can't Satisfy Her" is the first roots reggae song to be added to the Hot 97 playlist.
Why has "Can't Satisfy Her" been able to break through to American radio while other roots tunes have been completely ignored? "It is the strong lyrical content, the melody, the whole mood," says the soft-spoken singer. "It is the truth, and the truth is so strong nothing can stop it."
"It is so easy for both parents and children to relate to," adds Ronald "Sonny Spoon" Wright, who, along with Patrick Z. Henry, makes up I Wayne's management team, Loyal Soldiers; the duo also produced "Can't Satisfy Her." "I think it is a milestone, not just for I Wayne and us, but for the entire music fraternity, that a hardcore reggae song can go international without a rap or R&B artist on it."
It's uncertain if American fans are connecting with the song because of its message or because of its appealing beat, but there is no question that solid lyrical content is an impressive characteristic of I Wayne's music. On another single, "Living in Love," he paints a captivating if somewhat abstract portrait of personal and global strife over Steven "Gibbo" Gibbs's equally compelling Hard Times riddim: "I love to see my people living in love, I hate to see them fighting and swimming in blood/Nuff neglect the farming, scorning the mud, yet they want to be the first to pick the fruit as it bud/Rasta tell them all the while stop war and go till the soil, stop fighting for land and oil/The people acting vile pick up cannibal style, want to devour mama, papa, and child."
But the crown jewel in I Wayne's gilded trilogy is the haunting "Lava Ground," one of the year's best singles (actually all three of his records make the cut) and a striking marriage of an exquisitely crafted riddim and inspired vocals attendant to lyrics that seemingly describe Armageddon. The song's most stunning moment arrives with the last verse, as he raises his voice a few octaves and hits high notes like a divinely ordained (if somewhat defiant) messenger: "Deh a 'pon the lava ground, nuff a dem a look to see I man go down/Hype and worry through dem have a gun, tell dem say de warriors nah go run, nah go run."
I Wayne's explanation of "Lava Ground" is nearly as obfuscated as the song's volcanic verse; in fact most of his answers provide a departure point from which he veers into a larger celestial context. "When I say lava ground, it's not a particular spot or place," he begins. "Lava flowing all over inna the earth, the volcanic activity, the smoke that take place on the lava ground, the lava is the core of it. I Wayne praise the lava, the thunder and lightning, and the brimstone and fire as much as I praise the sun, the water, the earth, and the wind. The wind is like I Wayne's writer. It is I Wayne's greatest inspiration."
Born Clifford Taylor 25 years ago, I Wayne was raised by his aunt and her husband, uncle Ansell Collins, in the Kingston, Jamaica suburb of Portmore. (A renowned keyboard player, Collins is responsible for the Lava Ground riddim and achieved worldwide fame with "Double Barrel," his mostly instrumental hit with Dave Barker that topped the UK charts in 1971.) As a student at Greater Portmore High School, I Wayne joined a local group called Vibes Machine and performed at various Portmore nightclubs. When the rest of the group failed to show up one night, he was forced to perform alone. Encouraged by the positive response, he decided to pursue a solo career. He perfected his unique style through appearances with local sound systems.
It was at an early-morning sound system session when Ronald "Sonny Spoon" Wright first heard I Wayne sing. The former was so impressed with the young artist that he returned to the music industry (after leaving it a few years earlier) to manage him. "From the first word he said on the mike -- lightning -- it was like I was struck by lightning then," recalls Sonny Spoon. "I got what we in Jamaica call cold bumps [goose bumps], but these were bigger than bumps; it was like warts! Then I thought even if he have no lyrics besides this lightning, with his unique type of voice, I could work with him. But he went on for about three hours, and I heard so many great lyrics I was actually embarrassed about the thought that I had."
The humble singer is pleased about the positive impact he is making, particularly in redirecting dancehall's lyrical content. But he adds that his achievements are but a small step in a far more significant spiritual realm. "I encourage others to do positive music," says I Wayne. "Some gwaan with lewd, nasty lyrics, but I still gwaan blaze through the fire because it is a longevity thing."