Buju Banton, Upside Down 2020 (Gargamel Music/Roc Nation)
Gargamel Buju, aka Buju Banton, managed to pull off one of the sharpest redemption arcs of recent musical history, going from a designer-clad, gun-and-drug-referencing, murderously homophobic, firebreathing dancehall rude boi of the kind only the Kigston Town ghettos can produce to dreadlocked spiritual roots reggae mystic. And he did it with just one record, undisputed classic Til Shiloh, which seemed to solidify his about face, to lock it into amber. But then Buju done went and threw a wrench into the cogs of his story by getting himself arrested and imprisoned for cocaine distribution. Newly freed, those of us interested in Banton wondered what his “first day out” record would sound like. Would we get the clear-eyed leader of the new roots movement, newly redeemed and humbled, or had the federal pen turned him back to his combative, ultra-militant original roots? And with Upside Down World we got, thankfully, both. No individual is perfect, after all, and Buju has no fear of letting his many contradictions run wild all over this sprawling, masterful mess of a comeback. If you want that old school Gargamel aggression, skip right to the firebreathing “Blessed” and feel the earth scorched out from under your feet. Same with “Steppa” that lurches and leers like an early Big Youth track. If you want Til Shiloh spiritual quest epics, you will find many, with “Lamb Of God”, “Buried Alive”, “Rising Up” and the tropical-spooky “The World Is Changing” ranking up there with anything to be found on that record. “Yes Mi Friend” with Damian Marley has to be one of the most chipper, bouncy, absolutely joyful “I’m outta’ jail!” bangers ever put to tape. “400 Years” is one of those “Babylon is falling” statements that only the most tuned-in and visionary of reggae artists can pull off effectively. There’s a definite ska-inflected, Trojan Records touch to some of these tracks, something I’m not aware Banton has ever dabbled with previously, from the playful xylophone on “Yes Mi Friend” to the street corner doowop of “Lovely State Of Mind”, and it perfectly suits Buju’s gruff-with-age, but still angelic, vocals. Purists and some reviewers have expressed disdain for the pop-leaning tracks on this record, like the John Legend-assisted “Memories”, but can you really fault the man for shooting for some mainstream success and riches? Indeed, this thing was nominated for a Grammy, so Buju got the last laugh in the end. If you want purity and a clean story, stick with the Still Shiloh reissue scheduled for this year. But if you want to hear Buju Banton in all his diverse, imperfect glory, jumping schizophrenically between styles like a god-gifted magpie who never falters, then Upside Down World is the perfect comeback from this bonafide world treasure.