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Reggae/Dancehall Fresh Picks of the Month: Eesah, Teejay, King Cruff & Runkus, J Boog & More

After weathering two globe-traversing clashes in January, dancehall spent much of February reeling from those showdowns. If January was focused on the global reach of some of the biggest stars across dancehall, then February was a month of reflection for the most towering icon of West Indian music and culture: Bob Marley.

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On Valentine’s Day (Feb. 14), Bob Marley: One Love — directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green and starring Kingsley Ben-Adir and Lashana Lynch as Bob and Rita Marley, respectively — hit theatres to the delight of millions of fans around the world. Despite middling reviews, the film has quickly proven to be a blockbuster, crossing $100 million at the worldwide box office in just 10 days and earning the biggest opening day for a film in Jamaica, as per Deadline. As the film continues its formidable box office run, another Marley — namely YG Marley — has been climbing the charts thanks to his breakout hit “Praise Jah in the Moonlight,” which recently became his first Billboard Hot 100 top 40 hot (No. 39, chart dated Mar. 2).

Although One Love kept spirits high, February bid the world goodbye with some devastating news. On Sunday (Feb. 25), Grammy-winning reggae group Morgan Heritage announced the passing of lead singer Peter “Peetah” Morgan. Morgan Heritage’s publicist, Sean ‘Contractor’ Edwards, told DancehallMag that the 46-year-old vocalist passed in the United States following a stroke. Morgan Heritage has released a plethora of albums, including Don’t Haffi Dread (1999), Full Circle (2005), Avrakedabra (2017) and Strictly Roots (2015), which hit No. 1 on Top Reggae Albums.

Naturally, Billboard’s monthly Reggae/Dancehall Fresh Picks column will not cover every last track, but our Spotify playlist — which is linked below — will expand on the 10 highlighted songs. So, without any further ado:

Freshest Find: Eesah, “Behold the Conquering Lion”

When the opening track to your debut album is stunning as this, you know you’re setting yourself up for quite the career. On “Behold the Conquering Lion,” Jamaican singer-songwriter Eesah delivers a riveting mélange of roots reggae, jazz and gospel. “Immortal and omnipotent/ Carry the world pon your shoulder, you nuh need no help/ The work you do is so excellent/ No fear, no fly by night or pestilence,” he croons. Musically, the mix is so clean that it almost sounds innocent, but Eesah’s subtly gravelly tone alludes to a weariness and maturity that gives credence to the faith he sings of. With “Conquering Lion” — and the rest of his debut LP, Deep Medz — Eesah looks to reggae’s past to envision its future.

Teejay, “4th of July”

Last month, Teejay dominated online conversation thanks to his clash with Valiant. In a complete 180°, the “Drift” singer kicked off February with the release of his I Am Chippy EP (Feb. 2), his first formal project under his new Warner Music deal. While the complete tape is impressively consistent, “4th of July” emerges as an instant standout. Featuring what appears to be a haunting interpolation of Billie Eilish and Khalid’s “Lovely,” “4th of July” is a sly bait and switch. The somber trap dancehall instrumental signals similarly bleak lyrics, but, before even starts singing, Teejay assures us, “Me not even a sing no sad song pon di riddim yah, enuh/ Issa frass song hehehe/ Issa high song, dawg.” And that it is. An ethereal ode to the transformative properties of Mary Jane, “4th of July” finds Teejay at his most interesting and ambitious on I Am Chippy.

Sean Paul & Beres Hammond, “Tender Tender”

Few artists have so seamlessly oscillated between the worlds of dancehall and reggae on a global stage for nearly three decades like Sean Paul has. For his latest single, he joins forces with beloved Jamaican reggae crooner for a sweet love song titled “Tender Tender.” Balancing Hammond’s earthy, raspy tone with Sean Paul’s trademark brassy timbre, “Tender Tender” is rooted in traditional reggae, with heavy emphasis on the sultry guitar licks and steady percussion. “You lift me higher/ Higher than before/ Bonfire’s burning/ Burning to the core,” Hammond belts, his voice dripping with passion.

J Boog, “Always Been You”

February is the month of love, so it’s not a surprise that some of the warmest reggae tracks of the year made their debut this month. On “Always Been You” — a winning symphony of soothing background vocals, a tasteful rocksteady melody and jaunty horns and percussion — J Boog croons of the inevitability of his one true love. “It’s always been you/ Hunny just you/ Always been you/ Forever babe,” he sings in the simple, but highly effective, chorus.

F.S. & Ireland Boss, “Chasing Dreams”

There was a period where the innate moroseness of trap dancehall’s sparse soundscapes regularly gave way to deeply introspective tracks. With “Chasing Dreams,” St. Thomas emcee F.S. injects a healthy dose of hope into the dynamic. In an interview with World Music Views, F.S. describes the Ireland Boss-produced track as “ghetto gospel… my life story, what me been through,” and that’s a pretty apt description. The essence of gospel lyricism — the belief in something bigger than yourself and the persistence to keep going in the face of endless trials and tribulations — are all over “Chasing Dreams,” just in a decidedly contemporary dancehall context.

Jah Vinci, “Where Is the Love”

Taken from the “Breadcrumbs” riddim, Jah Vinci’s “Where Is the Love,” is a soaring, melodic inquiry of where the true love is in a world like ours. “Where is the love that they all speak of/ I have no one that i can truly trust/ Where is the love that they claim to give/ Nobody nuh real again, nuh trust no family, nuh trust no friend,” he belts in the chorus. Is it it a bit grim? Sure, but it also speaks to a very real emotion millions of people have as we collectively witness the implosion and demise of several states and socioeconomic systems around the world. While “Where Is the Love” fits well in the contemporary reggae soundscape, Jah Vinci’s lyrics reveal a steadfast commitment to the genre’s history of speaking truth to power.

ZJ Chrome & Christopher Martin, “The Hate Song”

Has Valentine’s Day really passed if nobody has made a song flipping the concept of Love Day? For his take on ZJ Chrome’s “Above the Lines” riddim, Christopher Martin rides the electric guitar-inflected reggae jam with heart-wrenching lyrics that trace the interconnected feelings of love, hate, and infatuation. “I hate you/ More than anything in this world/ But you know I like/ And love you for life,” he croons. Martin has a gorgeous, rich tone that pairs well with the wailing guitars and plucky rhythm that comprise ZJ Chrome’s riddim. When he employs that tiny bit of rasp at the end, we get a taste of why rock and reggae are such close musical relatives.

Charly Black, “Oxtail ‘Extra Gravy’”

Here’s another question: have you lived if you’ve never asked (and faced the inevitable embarrassment of doing so) for oxtail with “extra gravy” from a proper Caribbean spot? You simply haven’t. For his new track, dancehall staple Charly Black put his own spin on the popular culinary request. The spin in questioning? Likening his lady’s nether regions to the delectable dish that is oxtail with extra gravy. With guitar licks and drum patterns sourced from Afrobeats, this culture-bridging track could very well become a sleeper hit as 2024 barrels on.

King Cruff & Runkus, “Fallback”

At the tail end of the month, King Cruff and Runkus linked up for “Runkus,” a sleek ode to heartache inna di dancehall. “Winter cold, girl you freezing/ By the spring, then you waan come back/ You love me like the seasons (Just fall back!),” they harmonize over the electro R&B-infused riddim. Dancehall tracks are often preoccupied with extolling the escapism of a night of wining, but “Fallback” crashes the party with a tasteful take on the seemingly endless back-and-forth that can sometimes come with dealing with a flaky lover.

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