Album Review: Blvk H3ro - On A Mission
by Steve Topple
Since his 2019 phenomenon Immortal Steppa, Blvk H3ro has seemed quite on the album front – except for 2020’s seven-track project with Wayne J called The New Millenium. Clearly, this eclectic craftsman has been ‘on a mission’ – as he’s finally released another stunning full project.
On a Mission, released via Delicious Vinyl Island, picks up where Immortal Steppa left off in some respects – cementing H3ro as an eclectic, unboxable-in artist. The varied production across the album comes from the likes of Soko7, famous for Beyoncé’s Drunk In Love, and African music ambassador Blaq Pages. Collaborations are a plenty – but this is H3ro’s show, and in no uncertain terms does he deliver, creating a three-stage album which sweeps across the length and breadth of Jamaican-and African-influenced genres.
The album opens with Mission. It’s pure, wound-down Afro House-meets-Dancehall: the latter with that recognisable rhythmic clave spread across the bass and claps, and use of samples. Influences of something Afro House are also present across the pleasing chord progressions, stuttering percussion, dampened keys, use of synths, layered backing vocals, blissed-out timbre, plus that four-to-the-floor kick. It’s gorgeous, and cements what’s to come across the first part of this global-inspired album.
Crazy World featuring Jamaican superstar Skillibeng is more Afro-fusion Dancehall – here, displaying a lighter touch in terms of the instrumentation used, and additional syncopation on the clave. Plus, if you haven’t heard Skillibeng sing-sing before, well now’s your chance – and he’s great at it, too. It Nuh Easy, produced by Koastal Kings and Biggs Fya Muzic, sees the Dancehall sound stripped away further, leaning heavier into Afro influences with some stark yet intricate percussive arrangement across a winding and picked bass, while the percussion stutters a la Afrobeats, with lush production and engineering akin to RnB – think Lila Iké and Sevana and you’re there.
Big Things featuring Zimbabwe’s Winky D and Ghana’s Vylet Stone is a natural progression in sound – as we finally end up hovering around Afrobeats: complex percussion, layered harmonies, fascinating instrumentation, and attractive keys all merge with searing performances from Winky D and Stone. But there’s still nods to Jamaica in the breaks, and you cannot get away from the Dancehall clave – seen across the first two beats of some bars. Glorious.
Then, Do No Cry moves On a Mission’s sound further again, marking chapter two of the album as such – here, taking in a four-to-the-floor kick across what is Afro-RnB, with a lilting and excellently-executed sax, some funky guitars, but still with syncopated percussion. It’s fresh and inventive. Then, Annabella featuring the always impressive Dre Island and produced by Zimbabwe-born Soko7, is a further change, seeing Afro Swing make its first appearance with that broken Dancehall clave across Hip Hop drums and stuttering Afrobeats percussion – while the additional instrumentation cements the smooth, sultry, RnB-influenced vibes.
On A Mission begins to wind down with Arguments, a distinctly Afro-RnB affair with stuttering drums, a broken Dancehall clave, some shimmering use of synths, and smooth, velvety RnB production techniques. The arrangement of the distorted synth horns is particularly pleasing. Drive slows the pace down further, here with a Neo Soul (or Alt RnB if you’re Gen Z) vibe. A lilting electric organ meanders around the laid-back bass across distinctly Hip Hop drums and some funky guitars. Pure class, evoking memories of Maxwell.
But then suddenly, we’re back to something very recognisable in Jane featuring the legendary Anthony B. Lovers Rock is here, with smoothed-out instrumentation and production across Reggae vibes like a bubble rhythm.
We’re not sure what Shenseea makes of the eponymous track seemingly dedicated to her, but musically it must surely meet with her approval: smooth AfroDancehall-meets-RnB vibes and a Hip Hop bass line, with a pleasing electric organ and whining guitar bringing some Soul vibes in.
Good Body features producers Soko7 and Blaq Pages. It moves the AfroDancehall sound further forward – picking up the pace further, and marking the final chapter of On A Mission, as something grimier is coming in. An imposing, pounding 808 bass rides the broken clave rhythm with a flourish at the end, but melodically swooping up and down like UK Grime or Afro Swing; some stark arrangement elsewhere, and heavy engineering – plus a sudden, sample-heavy bridge pleases intensely.
Killa Killa featuring Demarco, Laa Lee & Zenya furthers the sound – moving into dirtier Trap Dancehall territory, but not quite. The bass is grimy, the snare sharp, and the horn synths rasping. But it lacks the buzz rolls on the hi-hats to make it properly the genre – however, the direction of travel is clear. Celebration then hammers this vibe even more, with a complex instrumental arrangement from producers Princeton Antony Brown and Sonic Gold Productions (specifically, great dampened trombone and trumpet synths) – and the wind is strong across this powerhouse track.
Rich and Blessed featuring Teejay finally takes on Trap Dancehall proper, with those hi-hat buzz rolls here, an imposing bass line, stuttering kick, some keen use of breaks, engineering across the vocals, and excellent use of synths. It’s 2023 Dancehall encapsulated (whether cultural purists like it or not) – and is the natural conclusion to the album. On A Mission concludes proper with Annabella (RMX) featuring the father of UK Afro Swing Kojo Funds doing what he does best.
Vocally, H3ro is indisputably a gifted talent, with a natural voice that is one of the strongest to emerge from Jamaica in recent years. Little more needs to be said, as his performances evidence this. But Drive perhaps shows him at his best: expressive, with complete control over his instrument – deftly flipping from his tenor to falsetto then down into a high baritone and back again, with a timbre that’s rich and warm. Pure joy – and it would be interesting to see H3ro do an album purely in this kind of style to see what he could really do.
Lyrically, On A Mission is a melting pot of ideas and narratives. From the opener’s self-affirmative sermon, Crazy World’s talk of resilience in the face of Babylon and its proponents’ mendacity, and It Nuh Easy’s plea against violence and hatred because of the same reasons. There are several Lovers tracks, too, as well as some bruk-out yet thoughtful goodness like Celebration – but much like his vocal, Drive is perhaps the strongest effort, here, as H3ro muses on Jah guiding his life in the face of its trials and tribulations, and twists and turns.
But it’s also the construction of the album which is a stand-out – showing the intelligence of H3ro, and Delicious Vinyl’s commitment to this. On A Mission’s three constituent parts move across Jamaican and African derivative genres, guiding the listener during the journey and showing the sheer scale of both Black music’s influence, as well as H3ro’s ability to turn his hand to almost anything.
Overall, On a Mission is a triumph: a veritable celebration of Jamaican and African-influenced music, showcasing the artistic skill of H3ro perfectly. It surely must cement his status as one of the most inspired individuals to emerge in recent years – and duly sits amid the best albums of 2023 so far.
Blvk H3ro - On A Mission
DIGITAL RELEASE [Delicious Vinyl Island]
Release date: 08/18/2023
02. Crazy World feat. Skillibeng
03. It Nuh Easy
04. Big Things feat. Winky D x Vylet Stone
05. Do No Cry
06. Annabella feat. Dre Island
09. Jane feat. Anthony B
11. Good Body feat. Soko7 x Blaq Pages
12. Killa Killa feat. Zenya x Demarco x Laa Lee
14. Rich and Blessed feat. Teejay
15. Annabella (RMX) feat. Kojo Funds