The similarities across today’s reggae, West African afrobeats, and soca have allowed listeners to consume content across cultural and musical divides like never before. And over the last couple years, we’ve seen the interest in these genres grow well beyond their respective borders to influence pop, R&B and rap music overseas. In 2017, it was apparent that afrobeats capitalized from the momentum that dancehall started the year prior, having a marked influence on many of the year’s biggest tunes such as French Montana’s “Unforgettable,” Omarion’s “Distance” and tracks off Drake’s chart-topping More Life album. However, while it’s important to note the occurrence of crossover trends, we shouldn’t lose sight of the genres themselves and their constant cultural evolution. That’s why we want to highlight and celebrate the biggest releases in their respective arenas from 2017 while we keep a close watch on what awaits us in 2018.
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Nigerian afrobeats in 2017 was defined by the slower, moody, musical, “pon pon” style popularized by Mr Eazi and Tekno, but it was Davido’s “If” that was the sound’s reigning ambassador. The song not only rejuvenated Davido’s popularity at home, and won him several international accolades abroad, but it also introduced global audiences everywhere to the ever growing afrobeats genre.
Wande Coal & DJ Tunez — “Iskaba”
In recent years, Wande Coal has consistently been, in one way or another, involved in creating some of afrobeats’ biggest anthems. 2017 was no different as he dropped “Iskaba,” which served as a welcomed breath of fresh air with it’s jazzy upbeat tempo. In many ways, the song is rooted in classic afrobeats, only thinly shrouded with updated musical aesthetics to appease today’s crowd. Its infectious sax-induced intro led clubgoers everywhere to cry in unison with Wande’s vocals as he sang the opening line, “Oh my darling!”
Runtown — “Mad Over You”
For Nigeria, December’s like the runup to a caribbean carnival. Artists rush out their biggest hits and hope that by the end of the holiday season, theirs is the sound that rules the dance and becomes the following year’s anthem. So when Runtown released “Mad Over You” last December, he inadvertently gave Nigerians worldwide a glimpse of what afrobeats in 2017 would sound like. The song became an instant hit at wedding ceremonies and the ultimate relationship anthem in the club that saw Runtown croon longingly to his Ghanaian love interest. It reigned supreme for months, and was well underway to becoming song of the year, if only it weren’t for Davido’s response that came a few months later.
This producer-turned-singer hit maker is responsible for producing Davido’s “If.” He also churned out numerous club anthems in 2017, but “Rara” is definitely his masterpiece. As everyone else seemed to play catch up and emulate his 2016 hit, “Pana,” Tekno switched it up, moving away from from the love-themed “pon pon” trend, and instead offered a chugging polyrhythmic party song with social commentary about his native Nigeria. No song released this year, from Nigeria or elsewhere, better embodied the true essence of Fela Kuti, as Tekno gave us authentic message music we can groove to.
Juls, the inconspicuous young UK-Ghanaian producer behind some of Mr Eazi’s early hits, offered us the perfect soundtrack for summer earlier this year with his debut LP, Leap of Faith. The album not only helped introduce a number of musicians from the UK’s burgeoning afrobeats scene, but it also created a unique sonic landscape filled with swaying melodies and sparse drumdrops, allowing each vocalist to exude emotion and cadence with little more than a whisper or hum. Juls, in essence, created sophisticated afrobeats for a pensive Sunday afternoon.
Wizkid’s highly anticipated album Sounds From The Other Side was the first afrobeats LP to be released on a major label and a turning point for West African music this year. It paired reggaeton drums with dancehall melodies at house tempos, often all within the same song. At first glance, the formula seems chaotic. But it’s precisely what afrobeats has been bringing together for years. Add some heavy-hitting production by Major Lazer and DJ Mustard as well as cameos by Ty Dolla $ign and Chris Brown, and the result was a cohesive, 12-song glimpse into Nigeria’s club scene and a proper introduction to Africa’s biggest pop star.
This 26-year-old had a meteoric year — going from virtual obscurity to working with Major Lazer, seeing his face on giant US billboards, and a live performance on late night television. His breakout single, “Skin Tight,” introduced a Ghanaian twist to Nigerian music, but it was his album Life Is Eazi, Vol. 1 – Accra to Lagos that helped introduced afrobeats to the outside world.
The UK afrobeats/afro swing/afro bashment scene right now has several shining stars that are helping introduce Afro-Caribbean rhythms to western ears. One such star is the 21-year-old East Londoner, Yxng Bane, who seems to be killing everything he touches. His remix of “Shape of You” received an official endorsement from Ed Sheeran himself and hit NO.1 on the Billboard top Hot 100. His feature on Yungen’s “Bestie” helped catapult the song to the top of the UK charts, and his current single “Rihanna” is well underway to achieving similar success. Expect to hear a lot from him in 2018.
Speaking of the UK scene, many consider producer/singer Maleek Berry to be its current torch bearer and an artist to watch this coming year. His 2016 Last Daze of Summer EP spawned one of the year’s biggest hits, “Kontrol,” and made him highly in demand both on the mic and behind the boards. He’s been steadily releasing quality singles throughout 2017, including the standout “Been Calling,” as he continues to tease his upcoming First Daze of Winter EP release.
Nigerian rapper, Ycee, had one of the biggest records of the year with his tune, “Juice” featuring Maleek Berry. The song accents Ycee’s laidback cadence as he rides the R&B tinged afrobeat production that borrows influences from both the US and the UK, as well as current Nigerian musical trends.
From the moment we first heard Chronixx’s single “Likes” we knew there was something very special bubbling up for him in 2017. It was unlike anything we’d heard from him before – unlike anything we’d heard in reggae for a long time. Months later he delivered Chronology, an exploration of the varied sounds within the canon of reggae music. Reverent roots in praise of Jah, throwback ‘80s rub-a-dub, strummy guitar pop and the slippery dancehall of the aforementioned lead single. He shifts styles effortlessly and is the true embodiment of a complete artist – an amazing performer, songwriter and musical historian who understands reggae music’s legacy and seeks to add his own indelible mark on the genre.
Vybz Kartel — “Mhm Hm”
Despite the fact that he’s spent the last six years in jail, “The Teacher” remains the most prolific and influential artist in dancehall. He followed up last year’s King of the Dancehall by releasing an album’s worth of singles throughout 2017, each one illustrating the dynamic lyrical prowess that earns him the right to claim the dancehall throne. “Mhm Hm’s” arrival in September was quintessential Vybz Kartel: relentlessly dizzying and risqué rhymes ping-ponging against the bells, kicks and snares of the riddim produced by Jones Avenue Records. The people’s love for the song boosted sales of the products that Kartel mentions in the song and resulted in a video game released for Android phones, illustrating that Addi still remains the people’s choice.
Estelle seems to cast a spell on us every time she ventures in to the world of reggae music, and from the moment we heard “Love Like Ours” we knew there was something magical about this tune. It’s a sort of humblebrag in the form of a lover’s rock tune, and it works on every level. It doesn’t hurt that she’s enlisted the aid of the superlative Tarrus Riley for the song’s role of her new beau or that the track was produced by Supa Dups, whose golden touch was also at the controls of her perennial crowd pleaser “Come Over.”
Kranium has diffused any suspicions that he might be a one hit wonder by following up his debut single “Nobody Has to Know” with a series of hot singles and collaborations. But it was the late spring arrival of “Can’t Believe” that illustrated the real potential star power of Kemar Donaldson. In many ways, the track was this year’s ultimate example of how the worlds of dancehall, afrobeats, and R&B are colliding in exciting ways as the three vocalists trade off waxing poetic on the subject of stealing your gyal. “Can’t Believe’s” success is due in no small part to the Bam Bam infused riddim composed by ZJ Liquid, fueling plenty of wine-and-grind on dancefloors worldwide throughout the year.
Protoje — “Blood Money”
Protoje, one of Reggae Revival’s key players, returned to the spotlight in 2017 with his pensive track “Blood Money.” It’s an understated dissection of how the dirty money that runs Jamaica stains the hands of more than just the politicians taking kickbacks, connecting all the island’s players together in a lust for currency. Producer Philip “Winta” James has crafted an ominous instrumental that has an otherworldly quality to it, providing a perfectly foreboding backdrop to Protoje’s cutting lyrics.
Dancehall fans are always keeping their ears open for the year’s sureshot dancehall banger, and it was just past midyear when Aidonia’s “Yeah Yeah” dropped like a bomb. Before you could say “Di-di-donia,” the track had crowds dancing to the staccato drums and string stabs of the Genna Bounce Riddim. Aidonia’s delivery is an incessant bark as he runs down the agenda for the evening’s festivities: lots of high-grade rum and ladies to keep the party going.
Various Artists — Ouji Riddim
In 2017, roots reggae took a backseat to dancehall, which is seeing a lot of crossover attention. Luckily, there were a number of riddims that kept the roots movement going, many of which we chronicled on our Today’s Reggae Roots station. Our favorite of these was the Ouji Riddim. Produced by Upsetta Records, the churning bassline dances under seraphic horn lines and playful chimes, a sound reminiscent of a riddim from the early 2000s. We’re never mad at a ganja tune from Busy Signal, and hearing veterans like Mykal Rose, Jah Vinci and Chuck Fenda is always a treat. However, it’s the youth who have the freshest take on this music, and 17-year-old Koffe definitely turns up the temperature on “Burning.”
Various Artists — World Fete Riddim
TJ Records has made a name for itself building riddims that resonate with dancehall fans. 2006’s Show Off Riddim included one of Aidonia’s early hits, “Ukku;” 2008’s Unfinished Business introduced Serani to the world with the massive crossover tune “No Games.” Last year saw the release of Vybz Kartel’s King of the Dancehall, resulting in the instant classic “Fever.” 2017 led off with the galloping World Fete Riddim (co-produced by KickRaux), which had dancehall fans boggling at Kartel and Wizkid collaboration “Wine to the Top” and blowing up Konshens’ “Turn Me On” to the tune of 1.5 million YouTube views in under a week.
Ding Dong has come up with the perfect formula for success: combine Jamaican dancing culture (currently dominated by his crew Ravers Clavers) with tunes that synchronize partygoers around a particular dance move. Kool Ravers’ dance move “The Fling” inspired the song — it’s a full-blown cultural phenomenon, with celebrities like Usain Bolt performing the move at the official celebration of his last run and Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holnes joining Ravers Clavers onstage for a quick lesson from the artist himself.
This was a year of great reggae and dancehall from outside Jamaica, with solid releases by Common Kings, Mista Savona, SOJA and Junior Natural. But it was Hawaii’s the Green that caught our ear as a standout from the outernational arena. The sextet glides through a range of moods rooted in lover’s rock, occasionally touching on pop, rock and dancehall, with features from Busy Signal, J Boog, Eric Rachmany and Fiji. But it’s the group’s plush vocals that make Marching Orders an infectious listen.
Alkaline had a big 2016 on the heels of his full-length debut, New Level Unlocked, and it seemed like he had a lot to prove in 2017. He met that challenge head-on, releasing tune after tune — many of which landed on our Today’s Dancehall station — that showcased highwire lyrical dexterity, outpacing many of his peers. “Impact” is Alkaline at his sharpest, shredding detractors with tongue-twisters that see-saw over autotuned melodies.
The Gully Gad released a crop of solid singles and featured on all kinds of riddims this year (standouts include “Belt Buckle,” Laugh & Gwan” and a track we had on heavy rotation all year, “Dirt Nap”). However, “Red Rose” takes our top spot. It’s a reminder that Mavado’s haunting intonations always connect in prodigious ways with Di Genius’ production. Stephen McGregor crafts a subtly layered instrumental of angelic howls, jittery hi-hats, reverb-drenched percussion and walloping kicks as a backdrop to Mr. Brooks’ impassioned lyrics.
You can’t talk about reggae in 2017 without mentioning the genre’s newest up-and-coming star, Shenseea. Last year’s “Loodi,” a collaboration with Vybz Kartel, thrust the singer into the spotlight. Before long, she was voicing tunes on all of this year’s hottest riddims. While “Dynamite” or “Nothing Dem Nuh Have Ova Me” are solid picks, our favorite is the Mash Up International-produced “Waistline Ting.” Shenseea purrs through verses laced with dirty talk, interrupting the seduction to stretch her voice upward for the chorus. We expect to see big things in 2018 for this promising young artist.
Soca music isn’t music for a quiet night at home, mulled wine in hand. Quite the opposite — it’s designed to make listeners leap up and engage in frenzied, rum-soaked waistline wining, faces dripping with sweat and paint into the early hours of the morning. On Turn Up, Bunji Garlin captures the fever pitch of a Trinidadian parade, playing the role of Carnival monarch and growling orders to grind on the first person within reach. Production by Stadic, Jus Now and 1st Klase ranges from slinking grooviness to full-throttled party beats with touches of electronic dance music boiled in. As soca music continues to reach new heights internationally, the “Soca Viking” has established himself as one of the genre’s champions, and this album proves he has no intention of turning back.
At 23, Aaron “Voice” St. Louis became the youngest artist to win the Trinidad & Tobago carnival’s coveted Soca Monarch contest. One year later, he repeated the feat with this song, aimed at all the naysayers who proclaimed him a one-hit wonder. “Far From Finished” is an inspirational anthem, with its rags-to-riches story set atop a chutney-infused soca rhythm that nods ever so slightly to the creeping West African influence in some of today’s Caribbean music. With back-to-back wins, Voice has proven himself a force to be reckoned with in the soca world and an artist to watch in 2018.
Staying true to form, the King of Soca offered a plethora of singles in 2017. However, few stood out more than this ode to Machel Montano’s favorite pastime. Its title is somewhat misleading, since “Fast Wine” is a mid-tempo groovy soca that bounces along as Machel searches the club for his perfect dancer. Besides being a hit, the song is also a great example of soca incorporating outside production influences while still delivering something that feels uniquely Trinidadian.
GBMNutron is the production force behind some of soca’s big hits. In 2017, he demonstrated his range as a songwriter and artist with Calypso: The Unsung Legacy. While the album is full of great cuts, one in particular was unshakeable: “SOLD (Soca On Lock Down),” a slow-burning track that builds from a subdued dembow beat to a pulsing chorus designed to make dance partners draw closer. It’s atypical of soca: instead of unfolding as a frenzied, road-ready anthem, “SOLD” takes groovy and sexy to a whole new level.
“Full Extreme” lit up Carnival like gasoline, becoming an unofficial anthem for this year’s festivities. While it’s a raucous jam designed to make listeners have “no behavior,” it also contains an deeper theme. In the chorus, singer MX Prime bellows, “The city could burn down / We jammin still” — on its face, a seemingly simple message, but one that speaks to the cathartic nature of soca music. The genre has helped Caribbean people persevere through the most difficult circumstances, turning Carnival into a celebration of where the region has been and where it’s headed.