Words by LargeUp Crew
Popcaan photo by El Puru
Once more, in 2014, the year in dancehall could be summarized in exactly two words: Vybz Kartel.
A year that brought great lows for the Worl’ Boss on a personal level proved to be a high point for him artistically, as he continued to crank out hit after hit from behind bars, a perplexing artistic bright spot in a genre still looking for its next general. Kartel was so prolific and effective this year, that we didn’t know where to begin when it came to choosing tunes from him for this list. There was the dutty vacation anthem “Miami Vice Episode”; “Mamacita,” his Spanglish collaboration with J Capri and long-time producer RVSSIAN; the lyrical onslaught of “Do Di Maths,” each worthy of recognition in its own right.
For more evidence of Kartel’s continued reign, one need only look to the three other artists who had the biggest impact in dancehall this year. Firstly, Popcaan, Kartel’s former Portmore Empire pupil and protege, who took a page from Teacha’s Kingston Story playbook, cementing his artistic legacy with a Dre Skull-produced album full of broad-minded, man-of-the-people lyrics. Then there’s Spice, Kartel’s co-conspirator on “Ramping Shop,” the 2009 single that cemented his own place as good Jamaican society’s public enemy #1. After running tings with “So Mi Like It,” dancehall’s reigning queen clinched her biggest year yet with…wait, for it…another Kartel collab, “Conjugal Visit”—complete with a video starring a Kartel lookalike in jailhouse orange. And finally there’s Alkaline, dancehall’s new iconoclast, a rebel who seems intent on one upping Kartel’s every move feels tediously Kartel-ian.
Kartel’s fingerprints can also be found in less obvious places. Two of the currently prevailing trends in dancehall—the influence of EDM; and the return of classic ’80s and ’90s bashment vibes—could be said to have been predicted by Kartel. Years before any other dancehall stars gave Diplo the time of day, Vybz appeared on the producer’s now-forgotten 2004 debut album Florida and, five years later, he helped buss Major Lazer with his appearance on “Pon De Floor.” And he presaged the current trend of homaging classic deejay flows, when he paid homage to Shabba by adopting his style on “Gaza Ting A Ling” five years ago.
So, yeah, there’s no way around it. Love him or hate him (and there’s ample reasons to do both), Kartel is probably the single most influential artist in dancehall history. (Here’s 30 more reasons why, in case you need ’em.)
So that brings us to our annual list of the year’s best dancehall. Typically, we select only tunes that were released during the year we’re looking back on. But an overwhelming number of 2014’s impact tunes were dropped during the last gasps of 2013, too late to be considered for last year’s list, but too massive in ’14 to disregard here here. To be faithful to the guidelines we’ve followed in past years would mean that some of the biggest dancehall hits of the decade would go without recognition in any of our annual Top 10 lists. So here you have the most essential dancehall tunes of 2014—the tracks that ran the year regardless of release date.