Album Review: Usain Bolt & NJ - Country Yutes
by Steve Topple
The debut album from Usain Bolt has finally arrived – hitting #1 on the iTunes Reggae chart. But does this release from one of the greatest athletes of all time show his potential in music? Possibly – but it sadly doesn’t cement it.
Country Yutes, released via A-Team Lifestyle, sees Bolt team up with his manager (and best friend) Nugent 'NJ' Walker who is the main performer on the project. The album comes off the back of Bolt’s previous releases: the Olympe Rose, Immortal and Clockwork riddims. What immediately stands out on Country Yutes is the rapport between all those involved, here – as the album feels like a collaborative labour of love that crosses numerous genres; encapsulating the influences of Bolt and the team.
The album’s Intro is the only cut to properly feature Bolt himself, with a spoken word section addressing the ‘country yutes’ about ‘greatness’, ‘believing in yourself’ and that ‘anything is possible’. Musically, it’s a flamboyant opening with some very well-arranged strings across a slowed Dancehall beat.
Country Yutes begins proper with Living the Dream’s light-touch Afrobeats percussion, Dancehall razor-sharp strings and the RnB-tinged dampened piano offset the Trap elements, like buzz rolls on the hi-hats – creating a smooth, Afrobeats-led vibe which is well-constructed. Then, the Trap Dancehall feel is to the fore on Say Less. It features former pro footballer-turned artist and producer Bibi Gardner and former Big Yard Studio’s engineer (now also turned artist) Kamal Evans – with the addition of more striking strings across a part-clave, a lilting piano line and some ominous timpani.
It’s A Party takes Country Yutes into AfroDancehall territory with that recognisable ‘oneeeeee-twooo-and-[three]-and-fourrr’ rhythm being central across the percussion, along with a good vocal arrangement and some nice African instrumentation, including a synth balafon.
Country Yutes goes harder Dancehall on Yuh Know, but with an interesting arrangement that uses the rhythmic clave only on the first half of the bar. Things are wound back slightly on City Life: smoother Dancehall dominates with a really well-arranged string and piano section, a G-Funk whistle and Trap buzz rolls once more. Need Your Love smoothes things down further, with an impressive Jae Xo duetting across RnB-Dancehall vibes. Her voice is silky and delicate, complements NJ’s well and makes it musically one of the stand-out tracks.
Timing strips the instrumental arrangement back as a bass, lower-register strings and a smart use of a broken Reggae bubble rhythm on the piano creates a winding, stuttering track. Then, the piano line theme is expanded on across Days Like These, which moves Country Yutes into full Reggae territory – complete with call and response backing vocals and horns, along with some decent bits of Dub engineering. Fragrance is a classy RnB-Dancehall cut which takes the rhythmic clave but removes the hardness with a great sax line, filled with glissandos and blue notes.
I Cry reverts back to a more AfroDancehall sound with an attractive electric guitar, tinkering piano and a resonant, vibrating bass. The use of some Ambient RnB techniques, including bell bottle-sounding synths and heavy bits of vocoder on NJ’s secondary vocal line work well. The track Fyah shifts the tone once more, as Reggaeton comes to the fore: the four-to-the-floor kick and syncopated snare juxtaposed with an electric organ running a bubble rhythm.
But Country Yutes takes a vulnerable turn with RIP My G. AfroDancehall in formation, the pacey BPM and busy percussive line mingle with a synth balafon, an electric organ and a G-Funk whistle. This cleverly is at odds with the lyrics about the passing of Bolt’s close friend Germaine Mason – but it works well and is another standout track. The album then closes with Life. It’s a pure RnB track of the Old Skool variety, combining a dotted-note bass, a persistent drum line, attractive piano and a whining electric guitar – and features the lovely vocals of NJ’s son, NJJ. It’s a fitting closing and shows the versatility of Bolt and A-Team as producers.
But the challenges with the project are multi-faceted.
Country Yutes is undeniably slick: well-constructed melodies that stick in the head are complemented by detailed arrangements and musically, the project is solid and fresh. The finish across the mastering is quality: creating a versatile sound that plays cleverly into each track while creating a rich finish overall. And NJ is a competent artist: he has an adequate vocal range; is able to switch between straight vocal and singjay; is inventive in terms of rhythmic arrangement and brings dynamic light and shade to his performances to create emotiveness where needed.
But you’re left wanting a bit more than what is delivered. Musically, the album is just too ‘safe’, with no ‘wow’ moments to stop you in your tracks. NJ is not unique enough as a performer to take Country Yutes’ music and elevate it in the way artists like Alkaline, Spice or Vybz Kartel can. On a pure vocal track such as Days Like This, NJ is left exposed and his voice doesn’t fulfil the potential the track could have in the hands of another artist.
Lyrically, everything is somewhat insipid. For example, Intro and Living the Dream’s tired messages of we can all achieve anything we want to in life if we work hard enough ignores structural poverty and inequality (note I-Octane’s latest release, Stop, for a lesson in how a big star can do political and social issues well); Days Like This is in a similar vein, too. City Life peddles a de-powering narrative about women that went out several decades ago. The gyal and party tracks are family-friendly, therefore the album lacks edginess – while the love songs are lyrically simplistic. But Bolt and Co show flashes of potential, notably on Life which discusses being a humble, rounded and conscious individual versus what the system would have you be.
Sadly, artists like Etana, Sizzla and Kartel have all produced far better conscious work this year across more musically inventive and groundbreaking albums. Country Yutes feels at times like it’s just fallen off a factory production line. It fits perfectly into the capitalist side of Jamaican music – which is disappointing given Bolt’s huge platform and impact as an individual.
Overall, there’s nothing wrong with Country Yutes. But there’s nothing disrupting, exciting or novel about it, either. It serves its purposes - which are to showcase that Bolt and his label are competent musicians and also clearly to further his career and brand endorsements. As a piece of advice, Bolt and A-Team would do well to find some strong artists to work with - who could take their skill with composition and production and run with it.
But ultimately, Country Yutes is an album you’d play in the background – unfortunately on the whole, quickly forgetting. Disappointing, as we really hoped for more.
Usain Bolt & NJ - Country Yutes
Release date: 09/03/2021
02. Living the Dream
03. Say Less feat. Bibi Gardner & Kamal Evans
04. It’s A Party
05. Yuh Know
06. City Life
07. Need Your Love feat. Jae Xo
09. Days Like These
11. I Cry
13. RIP My G