Tuesday, October 07, 2003
It puzzles me that critical evaluations of Sizzla so frequently reduce him to just being a "conscience artist" - I mean, obviously he occasionally is, but it bothers me because lauding or attacking him on that basis totally ignores how thoroughly gifted he is at creating awesome club bangers.

Like most ragga DJs, Sizzla has carefully cultivated an inimitable vocal style: a quavery, unpredictable growl-whine, impassioned and strangulated as it struggles to get the words out. It's this sense of struggle that I find fascinating; not "struggle" in the social/religious sense, but rather the difficulty of verbal expression. When he's actually rapping and not singing, Sizzla embodies the idea of language as a process. It's hard to imagine ascribing to his lyrics as written down on paper any particular meaning or intention; for Sizzla the choice of words constitute only the first stage toward the articulation of meaning.

Rather, the great majority of what Sizzla has to "say" is expressed in the excesses of his performance, that which is expressed around and through the words. In "Heat is On" (over the Bollywood riddim) his choruses run out of breath and space as he fights to place as much aggressive emphasis on each word, each syllable as possible, to make out of the vague sentiment "the heat is on in the street/it's everywhere/everybody can see it" an all-encompassing manifesto, a meta-statement of grand importance. He sounds even better on "These R Da Dayz" (over Egyptian) where his flow prowls and bunches up like a restless panther, hiccupping and splurting compulsively as if trying to swiftly and secretly punch a hole through the walls of his cage, fabric of language itself. On the absolutely demolishing "Empty The Clip" he's forced to abandon language - the main hook and the focal point of intensity is a wordless "bdrdrdrdr" rolling "R", a sound referable not to an object or idea or even a feeling but just intensity itself - no words can be found to express Sizzla's all-consuming anger so the decision not to choose a word itself becomes an active choice, a denunciation of language's softness, its ready slippery slope toward prosaic understandings.

It's this sense of Sizzla's extra-linguistic approach signposting a fight with language rather than an alternative to it that distinguishes Sizzla and similar dancehall DJs from other (mostly female) proponents of vocalese - Tim Buckley, Bjork, Liz Fraser. For these artists' detours from intelligible words constitute escapes from meaning, flights into the internal, closed off, "pure" world of the semiotic. Sizzla on the other hand is always concerned with the social (although, I should stress that this is true of all dancehall DJs regardless of their persuasion - I don't care either away about Sizzla's veneer of rasta ideology), and he is aware of language's role in constructing social meanings, of the lack of meaning's a priori existence. Thus his struggle is to render his impulses intelligible while hovering around language's borders, rendering the inexpressible expressible. This is what I mean by "struggle". The closest point of reference is probably Mary Margeret O'Hara in her most aggressive moments such as "Not Be Alright", where one gets the impression that each word uttered marks a territory of meaning staked out in blood - the brain's linguistic's function is still being employed, but it is breaking down under the pressure of a fragmented psyche.

All that being said, I am immensely glad for the existence of "Love & Affection" (riding the eerie, quietly ominous Wanted riddim, one of this year's best), which distances itself from the more didactic tirades of Sizzla's other club tracks in favour of a celebration of women. "Good love and affection/that's what girls like". So far so straightforward, but Sizzla brings to this task a torrent of extra-linguistic resonance that renders this garden variety romanticism utterly compelling. "Oowah ahh ahh-oh I like! Oowah ah eeiiyou need!" he sighs in a moment of pure jouissance, his voice as trembly and unstable as Robert Smith or David Byrne at their most wracked and wrecked, before decending back into that enigmatic growl, his voice bumping up and down over the bouncy, skanking groove, disintegrating and re-emerging intact as he suffers through waves of lust and awe.

Wanted's groove is little more than throb of spacy keyboards, a mysterious evocation of frustrated desire, and Sizzla's voice, which can seemingly accomodate an infinite variety of timbres, shades, accents and affectations within the context of devotionalism, is the perfect vehicle for expressing all the contradictory and irrational unconscious impulses that burst forth in the throes of desire. I'd be concerned for anyone who Sizzla might actually have sex with, but this is one hell of a sexy record.


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