If Beenie Man weren't still smashing it on the ragga circuit, as he has been for nearly a decade, his crossover success in U.S. markets might taint his street cred. But instead, his lyrical skills and charisma just translate, making him a pioneer in bridging the long-puzzling disconnect between Jamaican and North American beat cultures. With Tropical Storm -- the second in a five-album deal with Virgin Records, after 2000's Grammy-winning Art and Life -- the question is no longer whether Beenie will score in international markets but whether he will do so with class. Despite earning his moniker (which means "little man") as a six-year-old music contest winner, Beenie rode out some lean years before being voted Jamaica's dancehall emcee of the year in 1994. He scored that honor with a barrage of ragga gems before going global with 1997's smash "Who Am I," which also served as the basis for 2000's worldwide dance anthem "Girls Dem Sugar." (Technically speaking, ragga is sped-up electro-reggae, while dancehall samples live instrumentation, although the latter is also used as an umbrella term for both.)
For Tropical Storm, Beenie again enlists the help of ubiquitous production crew the Neptunes (wanna hate 'em, can't), who previously worked on "Girls Dem Sugar." Here the producers help out on radio-smash-to-be "Feel It Boy," which comes equipped with a bootylicious bikini video and concise pop lines such as "Two wrongs don't make a right/Ain't nothing wrong with a good old fight." (Janet Jackson's overly breathy delivery of the chorus, however, kind of blows.) In contrast to that song's commercial flavor, the charging ragga-hop beat and rugged flows of "Bossman" should appeal to listeners who like their rap tougher than leather.
There's more worthy hip-hop here, notably the DJ Clue-produced "Fresh from Yard," on which Beenie out-potty-mouths Lil' Kim, which is saying a lot. But none is as radio-friendly or as deep as the Neptunes tracks. There's no pure dancehall to be heard either, as cultural purity isn't really the point. Tropical Storm is intended for those who need training wheels on their skankage or, more important, who want a fresh take on how to flow on a 4/4 funk loop.
In the 25 years since Coke La Rock helped give rise to rap music by "toasting" over the funk breaks of Jamaican DJ Kool Herc, the two sound cultures have rarely yielded such attractive offspring as this album's best moments. Still for long stretches, Beenie's knees -- and integrity -- buckle audibly under the weight of major-label crossover, giving in to gangster clichés, glossy overproduction, and abundant references to "making cheese." In the end, though, Beenie Man warrants credit for bringing dancehall and hip-hop closer together. Let's hope Tropical Storm marks the blossoming of a beautiful friendship.
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