A line of English to pick up on
THE TWO songs currently on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in which United States performers do a snippet of a Jamaican recording are Torey Lanez’ LUV and Fifth Harmony’s (featuring Fetty Wap) All in My Head (Flex). LUV has lines from Tanto Metro and Devonte’s Everyone Falls in Love Sometimes, while Fifth Harmony adjusts Cobra’s line “flex, time to have sex” to “flex, time to impress”.
The Tanto Metro and Devonte combination and Cobra’s R&B original have more in common than being made in the 1990s by male Jamaican performers. Although they use Jamaican nation language extensively, they have lines in Standard English, and it is those which the American performers pick up on (although Devonte does sing “everyone fall in love sometimes” and the remake puts in the missing ‘s’).
So the actual lines which are done in the remakes are in Standard English – which makes the originals have something in common with a number of dancehall songs which have made it on the Billboard charts.
Take Shabba Ranks’ Mr Loverman, which hit the Billboard Hot 100 in 1992 and held the number 40 position at one point. The refrain (not done by Shabba only during the song) clearly states, “Mister Loverman” and his name, “Shabba”. In January 1993, the original Flex by Mad Cobra had its Billboard Hot 100 run, peaking at number 13. Part of the chorus is clearly English – “flex, time to have sex” – although the couplet is completed in Jamaican nation language (“look how long yu have di rude bway a sweat”).
‘IT WASN’T ME’
One of Shaggy’s many Billboard chart entries, It Wasn’t Me, hit the top of the Billboard Hot 100. The duet with Rikrok has a clearly identifiable and very familiar denial as its refrain. Sean Paul placed higher with Temperature and Get Busy (both of which topped the Billboard Hot 100), but he got the breakthrough with Gimme The Light in 2002. The title and refrain are immediately clear to persons who speak English.
Does this common element to the songs prove that having a line or two in English is necessary for a Jamaican song to have Billboard chart success? No – although Rihanna’s Work does repeat the word several times, the rest of the track is a hard listen for even some of those who speak Jamaican nation language. And it certainly does not suggest that it is a guarantee.
However, it cannot hurt to have a small part of a catchy song in the de facto world language, English.
While we consider this, let us not forget that Jamaican popular music was initially made for Jamaicans and its international success was a happy accident, driven in no small part by the movement of the island’s people to England, the US, Canada and other countries. Naturally then, many of the songs would have been made strictly for the Jamaican audience, which includes the language.
And it would not have been even for all Jamaicans, but primarily the lower socioeconomic class. As Wayne Chen and Kevin Chang pointed out in
Reggae Routes, reggae as “... inarguably Jamaican, a rhythm in tune with its people, not only listened to all over the globe but still listening to itself”. It is an
intense listening, as they say, “music here is profoundly woven into the fabric of the society, still giving voice to the collective feelings of the community, a function it has lost in a number of places”. This local focus would dictate themes and language, but those makers of music who are trying to get beyond the transported Jamaicans and Caribbean audience in the largest English-speaking music market would be well-advised to think globally – if only for a line or two.
Tanto Metro (left) and Devonte