Album Review: Protoje - Third Time's The Charm
by Steve Topple
After the trio of albums In.Digg.Nation Collective released in 2020 as part of its new deal with RCA, Protoje is back with a new album – and once more, it’s all about the matter of ‘time’.
Third Time’s The Charm, released via In.Digg.Nation Collective and Six Course Music/RCA Records, is a natural companion both musically and thematically to Protoje’s previous release, 2020’s In Search Of Lost Time, and the first album in the ‘time trilogy’, 2018’s A Matter of Time. The former, though, veered further from a Roots/Revival Reggae path, seeing Protoje return to his own Hip Hop roots as well as embracing Alt RnB/Neo Soul and a smorgasbord of styles in between. But with this new release, the emphasis heads back to Jamaica – but while still paying homage to Black music worldwide and Protoje’s Hip Hop foundations.
There’s little point writing about the quality of the production, mixing and mastering – as it is of course all top class. Chris Gehringer’s mastering is bliss – bringing 21st century tech sensibilities while still embracing the ‘as live’ qualities of vinyl and the eras of genres the album visits. It should also be noted that the artwork is a clever follow-up to In Search Of Lost Time’s – with Protoje once again pictured with his daughter, but this time as a piece of artwork, not a photo.
So, what of the music? It is of course scintillating – with Roots at its heart, Hip Hop in its head and Black music more broadly in its soul.
Roots is the dominant force, naturally. The Iotosh-produced, Dennis Brown-sampling The Charm opens and sets a general tone. It’s that Revival sound Protoje helped pioneer reimagined for 2022: keys on a Reggae bubble rhythm and lilting, Calypso-esque guitars are juxtaposed with Hip Hop drums but a bass which is Trap in nature – distorted and grimy – with an ethereal, cinematic bridge layered with haunting strings and a final nod to the Old Skool with an air raid siren sample. This feature blends into track two, HILLS. Produced by 8TRACK & IV The Polymath, here Roots fully meets Trap with those stuttering, rapid-fire hi-hat buzz rolls and a swooping bass coupled with some tropical, bending guitar vibes.
This blending of Reggae continues on Ten Cane Row – produced by Iotosh and featuring a slick and sublime Jorja Smith from the UK. Here, the sound is symptomatic of Lila Iké and Sevana’s approach to arrangement and production: Alt RnB meets Roots; higher Hz and pitched instruments being the focus to create a lighter sound; plenty of glistening-then-dampened synths and a rich, resonant, omnipresent 808. It’s atmospheric and blissful. The Protoje/Iké track Late At Night from UK producer Cadenza samples Thom Bell and Linda Creed’s Children Of The Night as well the Pam Hall track Late At Night. Here, it’s more 80s Reggae-meets-70s-Funky Soul, but the sound is deepened slightly, some quivering horns and gunshot samples make for something highly brooding and an ominous bridge breaks out into Funky Hip Hop before a rasping electric guitar screeches across the denouement.
(No) Love For Me is produced by ZIAH .PUSH and co-written by Sevana, who also provides the additional vocals. It’s smooth, modern, soulful yet unsettling Roots: crystalline keys wind around Sevana’s rich and rounded vocal; delicate strings glide in and out while the bass is resonant and forthright. There’s a glorious inclusion of a synth horn and the overall tone traverses the line between laid-back and edgy perfectly.
Dreamy Eyes, produced by ZIAH .PUSH, samples Daweh Congo’s Love Is Real. It mixes the Lover’s Rock vibes up – with the horns taking on the role of the key’s bubble rhythm giving the track urgency, some pleasing breaks and bridges and an interesting percussive arrangement. But the star of the musical arrangement is the Jazzy flute from Sean Sonderegger – bringing a delicate yet funky air to the track – deftly accompanied by two of Jamaica’s best vocalists, Sherita Lewis and Chevaughn Clayton, here on backing duties.
But older-skool Hip Hop also returns. The Jesse Royal-featuring, Iotosh-produced and J.L.L.-arranged Family sees a return to those 80s/90s drum beats but with an attractive, Soul-meets-Reggae horn line from Okiel McIntyre. Similar vibes are felt (once again from Iotosh) across Here Comes The Morning – but here, the thrust is more Hip Hop-meets-Soul with the delicate guitar and piano lines and some neat synths, coupled with raindrop-like pizzicato yet dampened strings. Glorious.
Protoje still pays tribute to Neo Soul with the Zion I Kings track Incient Stepping. It’s classic ZIK – where Roots keys and other devices meets delicate Hip Hop drums, Ambient engineering with plenty of decay and reverb, and a soulful electric piano line and strings. It’s perhaps the richest track of the album, arrangement wise, and it was a moving shock to see the late, great Andrew ‘Drew Keys’ Stoch credited on the track.
And Third Time’s The Charm’s closer, Heavy Load (featuring Samory I and produced by ZIAH .PUSH) smashes everything that came before it. In a 4/4 time but arranged heavily with triplet notation to make it feel like a 20th century RnB track in 3/4 time. It’s all very bold and cinematic: intricately arranged strings; a fulsome percussion section; haunting drums and sparse breaks followed by swelling of the music again. It’s interesting comparing this track to the other closers of the ‘time trio’, because here the introspection is strong, both musically and lyrically – which sums up the thrust of Third Time’s The Charm overall.
It's a musically superb album, once more showing Protoje, his friends and In.Digg to be at the edge of the curve when it comes to taking Reggae music and making it fresh, inventive and relevant. Vocally his prowess is as strong as ever and the roster of singers and musicians across the album is impressive. But what really matters is where Third Time’s The Charm sits within the ‘time trio’ of albums.
A Matter Of Time was the unapologetic Protoje, filled with political and social messages. In Search Of Lost Time was the artist in a transitionary phase – having reached a destination in his life he long-sought but reflecting on the time that had been wasted. So, the end of the trio, this album, is the series denouement. Across Third Time’s The Charm we see Protoje at peace with himself – much of the time. HILLS ode to being comfortable in your own company and no longer reliant on the confirmation of others; The Charm’s declaration of personal and professional success; the focus on family on the eponymous track and Here Comes The Morning, a ballad for his daughter, and the singing of praises of his wife across Ten Cane Row and Dreamy Eyes. You could say that Protoje now has the physical and spiritual space to appreciate the time he now has.
Yet something still isn’t right. There are swathes of melancholy across Late At Night, as Jamaica’s poverty-induced chaos is played-out in lyrical form; (No) Love For Me reflects on the lack of acceptance from some quarters for Protoje and what he does, and Heavy Load sums this all up – that while life may improve for you, the knowledge that the world is still under Babylon’s duress never leaves. And even across the more positive tracks, tinges of introspection remain – like HILLS “better live life simple nowadays, cause people find a way fi try your patience. I evade them, zone in”. The contrast here being the time other people are wasting battling the system and each other.
Incient Stepping is perhaps Third Time’s The Charm, encapsulated, though – as Protoje sings praises to Jah, reflects on his own personal journey to inner peace while battling his own consciousness: "I wonder if I’ll live to see, love in the community; liberated and we free, anywhere we walk...". It sums up the album perfectly – showing us a Protoje who, while on the face of it appears to be at one with himself after his journey across time that led him to this point, cannot escape from what he’s seen and knows – and how time is not something so many others have, or appreciate the importance of.
Overall, Third Time’s The Charm is the jewel in the ‘time trio’s’ crown. Musically stunning, it is lyrically a complex album once more, with hidden depths requiring numerous listens. But it’s the project’s place in the series which is really significant – showing Protoje to still be the thoughtful, vulnerable and introspective soul he always has been, despite the trappings of success which time ultimately led him to. A lesson to us all – and an album of sheer brilliance.
Protoje - Third Time's The Charm
DIGITAL RELEASE [RCA Records]
Release date: 09/23/2022
01. The Charm
03. Family feat. Jesse Royal
04. Incient Stepping
05. Dreamy Eyes
06. Ten Cane Row feat. Jorja Smith
07. Late at Night feat. Lila Iké
08. Love For Me
09. Here Comes The Morning
10. Heavy Load feat. Samory-I