Album Review: Konshens - Red Reign
by Steve Topple
Konshens fifth solo album project is a departure from his previous one – but that’s a good thing. Because with it, he has confirmed his position as one of the most creative Dancehall artists to emerge in recent years – and delivered one of the strongest albums of the year.
Red Reign, released via Ineffable Records, marks a change of course from his previous, almost concept 2020 project Soca Virgin. Gone are the up-beat and generally cheerful party vibes; replaced with something more brooding, harder and in-your-face – which is a positive. The overall mastering of Red Reign is extremely good – with a consistently rich sound throughout which transcends the various genres. Konshens has written all the material himself, and also co-produced some of the tracks. This means there is fluidity across this huge, impressive 18-track album (some of which has previously been released) – where he tackles various styles and genres, creating an expansive sound.
Its opener (after the atmospheric Season 4 Intro), Mirror featuring the UK’s Stefflon Don, sees producers Track Starr and Jonny Blaze cleverly mash straight Dancehall and AfroDancehall extremely well. The verses and bridges work around the latter’s stripped back beat and lighter arrangement before the chorus goes full-on Dancehall across the recognisable ‘oneeeeee-twooo-and’ x2 beat. But the sound is smoothed out distinctly EDM instrumentation: dampened strings and horns – a theme throughout Red Reign. Don is on-point and all this combined makes Mirror a banger and potential hit. Boom Bang brings extremely talented Davido in on vocal duties with producers Ricky and Jonny Blaze’s musical focus being that Dancehall/AfroDancehall mash-up again with nice Afrobeats instrumentation, like a tinkering balafon and djembe.
Straight AfroDancehall (defined by that ‘oneeeeee-twooo-and-[three]-and-four’ beat) with nods to EDM and Trap is heard on the Track Starr-produced No Style featuring a pointed Kemar Highcon. Less Is More builds on what No Style started – but with producer Hitgruves Music bringing a more resonant bass and smoother arrangement across the keys and the return of those rasping EDM strings. Then, Eye Contact broadens the AfroDancehall sound out further via Shab Don and Hemton’s classy production.
Purple Touch takes Red Reign into harder, rougher Dancehall territory. Production comes from Zimi/Coldridge Williams/Richard Anthony Browne and Tyrece Jonathan McNaughton. The use of generally just one chord progression gives the track edginess. Some unsettling Trap vibes are felt but the sound is just slightly softened by the use of electric keys, and what sounds like a music box sample gives Purple Touch an ambiguous and interesting sound. Track Starr returns on Gun Head, paring-back the Dancehall-focused arrangement - but the chorus fills out with EDM strings lilting and some compressed horns. Pay For It features the infinitely talented Spice - and with Rvssian’s Head Concussion Records on production duties it is naturally that Dancehall-EDM fusion he and his outfit have become known for.
But then, the Bashment/Adam Alexander-produced Take A Shot moves Red Reign into hard Trap-Dancehall territory. The grimy bass is round and slightly distorted running a winding rhythm; hi-hats rapidly fire across buzz rolls mixed with incessant semiquavers; compressed and high-passed strings run a repetitive, unsettling melody and raspy horns provide a counter to this. Overall, the track is brooding and sensual.
Afrobeats-RnB vibes feature across the Yeti Beats/Ambezza-produced Want To Love, with a winding, melodic piano that’s been laced with pleasing pitch bending to give it some edginess. The percussion is stuttering; the bass stripped-back and overall, it’s an urgent yet flowing affair. It's Sexy brings more Afrobeats-RnB to Red Reign via producers Jonny Blaze and Stadic – but again, with nods to EDM. Expanding on the RnB theme, and Konshens joins forces with Ridwaan to produce Just Life, which brings a compelling Jesse Royal on board and slows the AfroDancehall vibes down to an almost RnB pace - but without comprising on the arrangement. The percussion is still central and Trap-influenced, but the additional instrumentation like a melodic electric piano line and the low-pitched strings create real atmosphere – and Just Life is another strong offering.
It's Cold features the powerful Dre Island. Here, with Konshens and Staxx on production duties the beat vibes are straighter AfroDancehall. But the rest of the arrangement leans heavily into Ambient/Toronto RnB: complex, rich and ethereal, with attractive chord progressions, the bass deep and slightly distorted, other instruments dampened and a shrill horn line shrill. The whole thing is smart, modern AfroDancehall-meets-Toronto RnB; 21st century Neo Soul, if you like – perfectly executed.
She Got It features Puerto Rican artist Rafa Pabön – and immediately turns on the Soca tap with that recognisable, winding kick/snare/hi-hats rhythmic line. The production from Jonny Blaze, Stadic, Staxx and Ryan Dillon is superb with some excellent use of EDM-like synths and detail on rhythm. This genre-change continues with Cold Hearted Girl. Konshens teams up with Kaelyn Kastle and producer J-Vibe across the only Reggae track of Red Reign. But even here, the sound has been mixed up – for example, with the bubble rhythm that would usually in the genre be on the keys instead running across the horns, too. The result is fresh and inventive.
Red Reign concludes with Can't Stay Sober – a rich and compelling AfroDancehall-RnB track from producer Good Good Production, which is detailed and emotive in equal measure. The lilting RnB guitar across broken chords juxtaposes with the bass, kick and snare running the AfroDancehall rhythmic clave. There are flashes of EDM with the synths – but overall, less is more and it’s an extremely strong ending to the album.
Throughout Red Reign, Konshens is vocally superb – swerving between singjay, at points rap and a straight vocal that goes low-down into a baritone and right up to a falsetto. He’s an impressive talent, and the tracks allow him to fully fly: Toxic Interlude with his a cappella performance being the perfect example.
Lyrically, some of the album is pretty raw: sex, gyals, sex and more sex. Not that this is a bad thing, as Konshens has clearly been on a journey of self-discovery and affirmation since Soca Virgin – and the more explicit tracks come across as self-confident and respectful, not misogynistic. Konshens has arranged many of the tracks to create mini-narratives – for example, No Style leads into Less Is More which then leads into Eye Contact. But it’s when he moves into more conscious territory Konshens really shines.
Season 4 Intro’s call for unity in Dancehall culture is strong. Gun Head deals with the mentality behind violence, while Want To Love shows Konshens at his more emotionally vulnerable – with Boom Bang being a ‘Part Two’ to this and It’s Cold almost being a ‘Part Three’ about the system’s negative affect on this woman he loved. Just Life is a stirring declaration of maintaining personal strength and faith. And Can’t Stay Sober’s reflections on self-medication with alcohol or drugs to blot-out the horrors of the system and the world is inspired and moving.
Overall, Red Reign is a strong release from Konshens. Musically diverse, its use of Dancehall as a base genre to expand up and to the side of is impressive – and has also created a sound that, unlike many of his peers this year, doesn’t lean too much into the Afrobeats influences but still nods to the Motherland throughout. Lyrically, he treads a deft line between the slack and the conscious, creating equilibrium – and Red Reign stands out as one of the strongest Dancehall-led releases of 2021. The reign continues.
Konshens - Red Reign
DIGITAL RELEASE [Ineffable Records]
Release date: 11/12/2021
01. Season 4 Intro
02. Mirror feat. Stefflon Don
03. Gun Head
04. Want To Love
05. Boom Bang feat. Davido
06. It's Cold feat. Dre Island
07.Pay For It feat. Spice & Rvssian
08. Purple Touch
09. Toxic Interlude
10. It's Sexy
11. Take A Shot
12. No Style feat. Kemar Highcon
13. Less Is More
14. Eye Contact
15. Just Life feat. Jesse Royal
16. She Got It feat. Rafa Pabön
17. Cold Hearted Girl feat. Kaelyn Kastle
18. Can't Stay Sober