Jhe first voice you hear on Mikayla Simpson, AKA Koffee’s debut album doesn’t belong to the 22-year-old singer, but to the late Bob Marley. Echoing samples of 1980s Redemption Song mingle with the sparse instrumentation of the X10 opener. His looks shouldn’t be taken as some kind of blessing: The Marley estate has never been very selective when it comes to promoting the late Tuff Gong’s legacy, slapping his name on everything from skincare products to skin to socks to Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and his oeuvre has been sampled and interpolated by everyone from the Beastie Boys to Bad Bunny, but nonetheless, a Jamaican reggae artist opening his album with the sound of the musical figure Jamaica’s most famous and revered is quite a cheeky gesture.
Like the lyrical nods to Sister Nancy’s Bam Bam and Althea & Donna’s Uptown Top Ranking on her 2019 EP Rapture, it’s presumably meant to say something about Simpson’s deep connection to reggae history. While her teenage friends in Spanish Town tended to like anything big back then, she told Rolling Stone magazine in 2021, she “got into reggae and I just went my own way”. Perhaps the evocation of reggae crossover’s biggest star says a lot about Gifted’s business ambitions. Jamaica hasn’t produced a huge mainstream pop star since Sean Paul, whose heyday dates back 20 years, but Koffee looks determined: ‘Could be caught in a new wave,’ she suggests on the title track, before offering to “cut the track in a new way if it helps me get a few plays”.
His career took a startling momentum. Two years ago, she became the first female artist to win the Grammy for Best Reggae Album, despite the fact that Rapture was clearly not an album: no matter how you cut it, it was a marked improvement over the previous year, when the Grammys deemed Best Reggae Album a collaborative work by Sting and Shaggy. She received a succession of high profile co-signers: from Harry Styles, who asked her to support him on tour; to John Legend, on whose 2020 album Bigger Love she appeared; to Jay-Z, who hired her to perform the theme song to the acclaimed western The Harder They Fall. Rumors abound that she’s working with Rihanna on the latter’s upcoming reggae album: sure, the singer’s beauty brand Fenty is getting a namecheck among the torrent of high-end labels mentioned in Gifted’s lyrics.
In the past, Koffee has spoken about the influence of Protoje on his work. While her brand of Rastafarianism and political streak is decidedly softer in approach than her idol’s – you get a slight sprinkling of Jah references and some catchy lines about gun violence on Gifted – she’s definitely got the eclecticism of the reggae leader of the renewal movement. Gifted covers a lot of musical ground in less than half an hour, from Lonely lovers’ smooth, mellow rock to Shine’s dabbling in the laid-back acoustic reggae genre loved by beach bars around the world, albeit backed by an immense electronic bass. The brief Defend borders on trip-hop, and, with J-Hus collaborator Jae5 among the album’s producers, Koffee has a strong line in Afrobeats-influenced tracks: the title track merges a filtered sample of kids singing with a rhythm that shifts from sounding organic, as if banged on congas and the body of an acoustic guitar, to fully electronic.
Inspired to say the least, the desire to appeal to a wide audience tripped up the album. Run Away is basically seamless AutoTune pop with a Jamaican accent. It may do the trick commercially, but it understates Koffee’s individuality. It is best suited for the laid-back party music brand that consumes the latest tracks from the album. On Pull Up, Jae5’s production occupies an extremely appealing space somewhere between Afrobeats, dancehall and pop: it’s accompanied by soulful 80s sax and a hook that’s impossible to dislodge from your brain. As her voice shifts from toast to soft vocals, the West Indies lyrics evoke Lionel Richie’s All Night Long, with whom she shares a certain twilight, party vibe that begins slowly, albeit through entirely different musical means.
Lockdown, meanwhile, takes an intriguing and ambiguous take on the end of Covid restrictions, Koffee’s desire for freedom tempered by fears that a romance that blossomed on FaceTime won’t work “when quarantine is over and everyone hits the road.” “Where will we go?” she asks, a line that sounds both wide-eyed at the thought of dating and troubled by the prospect of where the relationship is headed. It’s smart and inventive, its sound advertising without stubbornly following current trends: everything you could want in a pop star crossover, which Gifted might just make of Koffee.
This week, Alexis listened
Joel Ross – Prayer
The first fruit of vibraphonist Ross’ forthcoming album, The Parable of the Poet, is wonderful: a repetitive, tumbling riff that opens slowly and quietly to six minutes of bliss.