Up to di Timing

The line for crossing over from ragga star to rap market millionaire crawls along in a single file. But it's picking up speed. It took Sean Paul a couple of years to follow Beenie Man through the velvet ropes at the front, but within a year the security dude is speaking into his microphone headset, seeing if it's okay to wave through the hyperactive cat with the fire-colored hair and the face that looks like a sack of potatoes. Dude is probably thinking, Elephant Man might flash more raw personality than anyone ever, but there are going to be lots of, like, cameras inside. Maybe it would be wiser to grant cutsies to the chiseled young thug in the Iverson jersey and platinum bling who's breathing all down Elly's neck. Name a Vybz Kartel.

Not that Elephant and Kartel are rivals. Jamaica's reigning king and its crown prince share a onetime mentor in Bounty Killer. Both turn to edgy young crooner Wayne Marshall when in need of buttery hooks. And they favor the Don Corleon production squad -- especially Don "Vendetta the Trendsetta" Bennett -- for the kind of rugged, synth-heavy riddims that define the dancehall. But the cult of personality that is America's commercial music market can only absorb one deity from the yard at a time. So with Elephant's Good 2 Go (VP) hitting streets opposite Kartel's Up 2 Di Time (Greensleeves) just as America's swelling massives are clamoring for the next really big ting, reggae's two biggest indie labels are cranking up their hype machines and going head to head.

The charismatic Elephant Man has earned his place at pole position, riding the momentum of the über-single "Pon de River, Pon de Bank." But the rules are changing now that the delay between Jamaica's next big thing and America's next big Jamaican thing has vanished. Americans want the real deal. And Kartel is nothing if not "up to di time, down to di hour," to cite his catch phrase. The kid's as current as the tide.

He was raised as Adidja Palmer -- or "Deejay" to his childhood friends -- by his grandmother in the Waterford section of Portmore. As a teenager he honed his budding deejay chops at "Gong Show" competitions at Kingston's Coney Amusement Park, rhyming until the gong dismissed him. He also performed at his high school dances, at least until he was expelled -- perhaps because, as he quips in his smooth ganja tune, "Sen On," "I never went to high school ... but I went to school high!"

Nevertheless he earned an equivalency degree once he figured out that words were going to be his future. In 1996 he formed a group called Vibes Cartel with two friends; when the crew disbanded two years later, their well-being threatened by local rivals, he revised the spelling and kept the name for himself, effectively becoming a one-man cabal.

That same year Bounty Killer caught an impressive festival performance by Kartel and invited him into his camp. Meanwhile Kartel studied the Warlord's clean, dark vocal tone and dexterous flow, as well as his work ethic and business sense. Here was a man who had remained compelling to notoriously fickle audiences for a decade through a mix of quality control, marketing savvy, and sheer willpower.

Bounty also introduced Kartel to Marshall, whose vocal hooks on "New Millennium" and "Why You Doing It" helped Kartel land his first hits. Both tunes possess a time-tested formula that's crisply executed, cutting gritty verses with smooth but hurried choruses over bouncy beats. The way his staggered flow and playful, language-twisting lyrics on the first track set off the jumpy Mad Antz riddim -- "Inna mi Kari Kani, with a bottle of tall Canei, tough a lie?" subsequently became a catch phrase downyard -- is a thing of beauty.

Still it was going out on a limb that really put the 25-year-old Kartel on the map. Don Vendetta's Egyptian riddim features peppy drumming, while the melody moves like poured honey over layers of sounds that evoke a saw-bending festival. Every other artist who voiced on it fell flat. But just as Wayne Wonder had personalized the Diwali riddim for his "No Letting Go" with a beat-free synth intro, Kartel added snippets of hypnotic female humming to Egyptian's mix. Then he just riffed around that sound with some happy sex chatter -- "Squeeze up her breasts like jelly ... she sing like R. Kelly" -- leaving plenty of negative space, and the result was "Sweet to the Belly": a playful yet somehow soothing international smash.

Anticipation for his debut has been colossal since then, leading to face time for Kartel on BET and MTV and stories in numerous magazines, from The Source to Beat. Fortunately the eighteen-track Up 2 Di Time lives up 2 di hype, even if the degree of his success will be largely due 2 di timing of it, coming amid dancehall's greatest popularity swell ever. It's a nearly flawless effort chock full of cuts with swinging syncopation and supple synth sounds, all set off by Kartel's inventive lyrics and versatile flow. He has an amazing ability to switch up cadences and tones -- flipping from scary to silly and back -- yet always staying in the pocket of a beat, never sounding rushed even when rhyming double-time.

But it's the cocky "Start Well" that might prove to be prophetic. Over a beat that sounds programmed from a telephone keypad, he broadcasts his plans to "make reggae bigger than rock and roll/Me make it bigger than hip-hop and soul." It's enough to make one believe the rules have really changed -- that the velvet ropes across the States are irrelevant. Even mainstream America seems to understand that the party's in the yard, where there's plenty of room for Kartel and Elephant Man. Commercial rappers, soul children, and rock and rollers, consider yourselves lucky if they can squeeze you in.