Album Review: Protoje - In Search Of Zion (An Interpretation by Zion I Kings)
by Steve Topple
If you thought Protoje’s Time trilogy of albums was complete – think again. Because the king of Revival Reggae has returned - kind of - with a new release that closes this chapter of both his musical and personal life.
In Search Of Zion, released via In.Digg.Nation Collective and RCA Records, is essentially a reimagining of 2020’s In Search Of Lost Time where the eclectic vibes are gone, the music has been re-arranged, and the focus is on Roots.
Production comes from perhaps one of the best collectives working in music, Zion I Kings (ZIK). Much of the instrumentation was performed by the remaining three members: David “Jah David” Goldfine of Zion High Productions, Laurent “Tippy I” Alfred of I Grade Records, and Andrew “Moon” Bain of Lustre Kings Productions.
Protoje said of the release: “In Search Of Zion is my last gift before I go on to new music, so this is a closing chapter. This music is so different, some of them are Steppaz, some one drops, some are boom bap, one-two… a throwback to a Roots Reggae time”.
This premise cements the vibe of the entire project: throwing current sounds back further in time to reflect on the pioneers and the music that has come before.
Switch Up featuring Koffee is the reimagining of Switch It Up – and here, ZIK reworking encapsulates the thrust of the project well. Gone is the stuttering arrangement on the drums, replaced by a one drop. The track has been further made more fluid by the inclusion of a dampened electric organ, and some whining electric guitar riffs. It should be noted that the late, and sorely missed, Andrew “Drew Keys” Stoch appears here across an attractive trombone. Yet, Protoje and Koffee’s vocals still fit perfectly – and overall, Switch Up is a pleasing, mellow affair.
Jah Deliver Me reworks Deliverance and sees the differences between the original tracks and ZIK’s new versions become more apparent. From Deliverance’s Ambient-heavy Roots Fusion (where a female vocal sample replaced the usual keys’ bubble rhythm), Jah Deliver Me takes it back to Old Skool Roots – complete with some keen engineering, Stoch’s Feeder Rhodes, and a reordering of Protoje’s vocal line.
Still I Want Her (previously Still I Wonder) continues this smashing of In Search Of Lost Time’s sounds – taking what was a Hip Hop track and turning it back to upbeat, summery Reggae that has a very 90s vibe about it. The lilting guitars juxtapose well with the first appearance of a melodica, while the drum line is slightly more frantic than previously seen. It’s fresh, soulful, and wonderfully reworked.
Weed & Tings is the plural of the 2020 track – but that’s where the similarities end. The original was almost in Dub-meets-EDM-nodding-to-Trap territory, while ZIK new cut is Roots with some Ambient vibes thrown in; almost a tribute to Weed & Ting. Roots sensibilities do prevail – however, the inclusion of reverbed, flowing backing vocals and a delicate, dampened synth string line nod to the EDM of the original. Perfection.
A Vibes (again a plural) is an interesting track – as was the experimental original with Wiz Khalifa, veering from Hip Hop in one breath to Ambient in the next. Now, we have a mellow Roots cut, complete with a melodica mimicking Protoje’s vocal, and a flute from Bain. The electric organ line is also central here – yet Khalifa’s vocal is gone (possibly a record label issue?). While it’s a strong cut, it would have been more interesting to see what ZIK could have done with Khalifa’s rap thrown into the mix.
Feel The Same So re-imagines the original Same So with faithfulness, as it was arguably the straightest Roots Reggae track on In Search Of Lost Time. However, ZIK have moved the track forward, still – smoothing and deepening the sound, with a notably driving drum line including a Steppers-like four-to-the-floor kick dominant at times. Balboa Becker and Garrett Kobsef’s meandering trombone and sax are particularly pleasing, while Bain’s haunting electric guitar line finish this well-executed cut off perfectly.
Still Bloom featuring Lila Iké (In Bloom, of course) takes the original’s Roots-meets-Neo Soul vibe - endemic of Iké’s own sound, along with a sample of the Freddie McGregor track Revolutionist - and strips it back to a Dub-heavy, lazy, and mellow vibe, albeit with smatterings of the original’s Funky Soul influences still there. These include the cute electric organ that mimics Iké’s vocal and the gently tinkering keys (both from Pau Dangla Vals) – making this one of the strongest reworkings.
Wait On The Law is the hybrid of the Hip Hop-heavy but Roots sensible Self Defense; a veritable Revival cut. Here, ZIK have expanded the Roots sound to focus on some pleasing African percussion and a dominant and regal horn section. However, the drums keep elements of the original’s Hip Hop arrangement – and overall, it’s a pleasing and well-constructed reworking. In Life featuring Popcaan continues in this vein - seeing Like Royalty move away from its Hip Hop/Soul/Roots vibes, heading into straighter Roots territory with inflections of Dub thrown in and once again, well-orchestrated horns – along with a brilliant instrumental crescendo leading into Popcaan’s bridge.
In Search Of Zion concludes with Strange Things; no Strange Happenings here (although the new version still uses the melody from the Papa San (Tyrone Thompson) song Strange) – as ZIK finish the album with another brilliant Roots reworking of what was originally an RnB/Hip Hop-heavy cut. However, as with the entire project, the attention to detail is acute. The new track still nods to the original via the non-Roots drums, while introducing genre-standard devices, some nice changes of chord progressions, and a brilliant harmonica performance from Michael McArthur. Strange Things is a fitting closure to the album.
Then, all the tracks then have their own Dubs, again produced by ZIK. They are undoubtedly masterstrokes of the genre: evocative of the style, while still pushing the boundaries. Some of the highlights include Switch Up (Dub), where ZIK have employed some brilliant engineering to create an even more unsettling vibe. Wait On The Law (Dub) sees the reverb get very heavy, while Deliverance’s rework Jah Deliver Me (Dub) is ethereal with its focus on strings. The highlight is perhaps Strange Things (Dub) – where ZIK have employed some brilliant synth scratching with Protoje’s vocal to really hone-in on the original track’s sound.
Of course, the music is just one part of In Search Of Zion’s overall aims as a project.
Protoje’s Time trilogy was almost a chronological snapshot of the artist’s worldview and life-experiences. A Matter Of Time was melancholy and angry, In Search Of Lost Time was introspective and reflective, and Third Time’s The Charm was more settled, more rounded – but still at times unrepentant. So, it stands to reason that, after a lifetime’s worth of experiences compressed into three albums, Protoje should once more reflect on the ‘time’ that led him to all those points with In Search Of Zion.
The album feels like an honouring of the time before Protoje – and the Revival movement more broadly – arrived on the Jamaican cultural scene. ZIK’s classic reworkings showcase the sound, and period, that came before the Revival movement helped switch up the entire sound of Reggae.
You could also surmise that maybe Protoje is, as he said himself, “closing [this] chapter” of his Revival sound with this honouring of Roots Reggae, because whatever he does next will be a further step forward in his style – even more away from his artistic Roots’ genes, or alternatively nearer to them.
There’s more than the smallest of hints to Jamaican arts more broadly having evolved away from the original culture, too; what Protoje himself alluded to when he said the album was “a throwback to a Roots Reggae time”. It’s like that period has all but ended with the emergence of Revival Reggae, Trap Dancehall, Alt RnB, and Afrobeats. Taking In Search Of Lost Time’s diverse palette and blending it back to primary musical colours feels a bit like an admission from Protoje that his pretence of artistic flair, and others too, undermined what and who had come before him – and with this project, he’s rectifying that, while healing in the process.
Indeed, In Search Of Zion overall feels like the end of something. ZIK undoubtedly have created a tour de force of the sound at which they are so skilled. The album showcases the talents of Protoje and his team, too – as all the original genre-smashing arrangements naturally lend themselves to solely Roots.
However, there’s an underlying yet uneasy sentiment of humble closure on a major period in Protoje and the culture’s existence. What comes next is unclear for both – but it will surely be as captivating as what came before it, in every sense.
Protoje - In Search Of Zion (An Interpretation by Zion I Kings)
DIGITAL RELEASE / VINYL / 2LP [IN.DIGG.NATION COLLECTIVE/SIX COURSE MUSIC/RCA RECORDS]
Release date: 11/10/2023 | Vinyl 1/2024
LP1 SIDE A
01. Switch Up feat. Koffee
02. Jah Deliver Me
03. Still I Want Her
04. Weed & Tings
05. A Vibes
LP1 SIDE B
06. Feel The Same So
07. Still Bloom feat. Lila Iké
08. Wait On The Law
09. In Life feat. Popcaan
10. Strange Things
LP2 SIDE C
01. Switch Up (Dub) feat. Koffee
02. Jah Deliver Me (Dub)
03. Still I Want Her (Dub)
04. Weed & Tings (Dub)
05. A Vibes (Dub)
LP2 SIDE D
06. Feel The Same So (Dub)
07. Still Bloom (Dub) feat. Lila Iké
08. Wait On The Law (Dub)
09. In Life (Dub) feat. Popcaan
10. Strange Things (Dub)