Album Review: Sizzla - On A High
by Steve Topple
Sizzla is back with his third album in as many years. But to say it follows in the style of his other recent works would be wrong. Because the project is musically and thematically diverse – and utterly compelling as a result.
On A High, released via Kalonji Music Productions, is an expansive and inventive project from Sizzla. He did the majority of the production work, along with a swathe of the engineering and mixing. The result is near-faultless, with every track being finely-tuned perfection.
The album opens with Days Of My Life – and sets the fresh, up-to-date tone of the album perfectly with co-production from the up-and-coming Gingerbread Mane. It’s modern RnB, combining percussive elements of Trap (check those hi-hat buzz rolls) and its swooping, grimy bassline along with some dampened, lilting RnB keys. How Long, with co-production from Chiney K, was previously released across the World Beat Riddim in 2010.
The smooth, AfroDancehall-driven and previously released Thank U Jah is the epitome of modern Jamaican music, with co-production from Vision House Music/ Michael Fairman. It uses that broken Dancehall clave (‘oneeeeee-twooo-and-(three)-and-fourrr’) across the drums, along with a tinkering synth balafon and an omnipresent skanking guitar. Fairman and Vision House are back for Crown On Your Head, with its overly softer AfroDancehall feel (but with the clave still there), utilising a great synth horn line.
But then Business pulls-up the album’s sound, almost back to Fugees’ style 90s Hip Hop. Enter Michael “My G” Kirchoff/ In Da Mix Productions to assist Sizzla in honing in on this style: Hip Hop drums meets a South American guitar line and that root-seventh chord progression. Get My Love continues this theme (co-produced by Kirchoff/ In Da Mix), but with something of the West Coast, Tupac about it: a funky horn lines meets tinkering RnB keys and a groovy electric guitar riff - but with the hard, Hip Hop drum line driving the track.
Then, Sizzla returns to his musical roots with the title track, co-produced by Robert Murphy. Roots Reggae devices are a plenty – from the key’s bubble rhythm, to the horns’ refrain and the winding bass line. Interestingly, the drums avoid a one drop, with the kick making them feel harder by hitting the downbeats.
On A High then moves into something completely 2021 – and takes Sizzla into Trap territory. System features Mane, who also co-produced the track via his Great Black Minds label. It’s pure Ambient Trap-RnB: the hi-hat buzz rolls dominate but the edge has been taken off the bass, making it more resonant and smoother. The inclusion of a G-Funk whistle, haunting strings and an acoustic guitar then cement the Ambient vibes. Puff sees Mane return on vocals and production, taking System’s sound but losing the ambient vibe – turning the bass grimy and distorted and making the relentless guitar run broken chords.
Better Be Careful, featuring Mink Jo and with co-production from In Da Mix Records, has instant hit written all over it. It puts you in mind of 90s Trip-Hop: that fusion of Hip Hop drum beats mixed with Jazz influences - like the dampened, whining horns and smoothed-out strings. The album winds down with Nutten Good To Say – a track wholly based around just an acoustic guitar and bass from the talented Levar Campbell. On A High closes with Lady I Love U. It’s pure, unadulterated Reggae/Ska and a fitting end.
Musically the album is top-class. Then vocally, Sizzla shows if anything his voice has improved with age. Across On A High, he utilises straight vocal (including his still attention-grabbing and strong falsetto), rhythmically intricate singjay and also powerful rap – at points reaching around 10 syllables a second. He is a truly eclectic artist and the album showcases the length and breadth of his skills.
On A High’s artistic diversity is central to its individual tracks’ messages and the album’s narrative overall. It’s noticeable that compared to 2019’s Roots-heavy Victory, here Sizzla has ensured that the sound is intricate and modern – therefore being able to attract the most diverse number of demographics possible. Important when you have a lot to say – which Sizzla certainly does.
The album is essentially two parts. Its first focuses on positive vibrations and messages: from Days Of My Life’s declaration of spiritual love (and Get My Love’s similar message) to the Song of Praise Thank U Jah and the self-affirming, self-confident Crown On Your Head which exudes messages about maintaining your righteous path despite Babylon’s obstacles. Business transfers Sizzla’s own community-based philanthropy and ventures to music – as he implores us to create financial and personal success outside of Babylon’s economic system. The title track concludes part one – with its extolling of the virtues of cannabis.
But part two treads a different track. Better Be Careful is a cautious warning about how the system and its proponents are “after” those of us who are conscious – from social media tracking, to police and the surveillance system to Babylon’s back-stabbers. Nutten Good To Say expands on that last group of people – creating a haunting narrative about your detractors in life who seeks to destroy you.
But it’s System and Puff which reveal Sizzla’s vulnerable side to moving effect. The tracks are almost a ‘part one’ and ‘part two’ within the albums own two-part structure. System poignantly gives us an insight into Sizzla’s exasperation with seeing the constant decimation of us, our families and the planet. He sounds exhausted by it, despite his faith and knowledge that this was all predicted – which in terms of his usual, positive but raw messages is telling. Then, Puff offers his respite from it. Again, the track is interesting, as it presents a side to cannabis use which isn’t often explored by Rasta artists: that it serves to have an almost numbing effect to the horrors of the world. The two tracks are quite revelatory, and it’s no exaggeration to say they may be Sizzla’s best work in years.
But On A High brings itself back to reminding us that if we have love, then everything else will fall into place - with its closer Lady I Love You. Sizzla has always been a master of crafting detailed, complex narratives across an album – and here, he is at the peak of his powers.
On A High is perhaps Sizzla’s best work in recent years. Not only has he created something musically sweeping and engaging for all generations, but it pervades a message of both caution and hope throughout it. The range of emotions Sizzla displays is a veritable rainbow - and overall, the album will go down as one of his seminal works. Simply superb, enthralling and moving.
Sizzla - On A High
DIGITAL RELEASE [Kalonji Music Production]
Release date: 08/06/2021
01. Day Of My Life
02. How Long
03. Thank U Jah
04. Crown On Your Head
06. Get My Love
07. On A High
08. System feat. Gingerbread Mane
09. Puff feat. Gingerbread Mane
10. Better Be Careful feat. Mink Jo
11. Nutten Good To Say
12. Lady I Love U