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Sean Paul 

Dutty Rock

Wednesday, Jan 1 2003
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Sean Paul's success in commercial hip hop markets doesn't make him a sellout -- yet. His ubiquitous ganja-burner anthem, "Gimme the Light," is genuine dancehall reggae, even if backed by Atlantic's major label clout. And as with his 2000 debut, Stage One, Paul's sophomore release, Dutty Rock, collects his biggest -- and therefore, some of dancehall's best -- singles from the previous two years. Still, the combination of this album's international surge with some compromised content repositions Paul from dancehall king to No. 1 crossover contender.

Unlike most of his artistic peers, the 29-year-old Paul originally chose to make music as a way into street culture rather than a way out. The son of a well-to-do painter, the Portuguese/Chinese/Jamaican artist was a renowned college water-polo player before briefly settling into a banking career. When he first tried his hand at dancehall, his "uptown" roots induced skepticism -- until he quickly scored a hat trick of smash hits. Delivering sexed-up wordplay with a silky voice and robotic flow, he seemed able to pull a fundamental melody from any riddim, like a master sculptor chipping a perfect image from a stone. (In dancehall, many vocalists will use the same instrumental backdrop, or "riddim.")

Dutty Rock picks up where Stage One left off, with Paul taking solid riddims to the next level, but faltering on the great ones. "Can You Do the Work," a bedroom face-off with dancehaller Ce'Cile, thrives on the vocal interplay between the two, but on "Get Busy" the clap-happy Diwali riddim (which was handled better by Elephant Man, among others) overshadows Paul. In fact, his stammered verses and sing-along choruses find true synergy with fresh beats only twice: in the stark simplicity of "Gimme the Light," and in the infectious, synth-poppy "Like Glue."

The album's ragga-rap hybrids work even less smoothly. While not overtly commercial, "Esa Loca" and "Top of the Game" -- featuring Tony Touch and the Roots' pal Rahzel, respectively -- smack of crossover-market toe-dipping. Fortunately, however, Paul seems poised to sell big without selling out. After all, if the uptown rude-boy was only in this for the money, he never would have left his job at the bank.

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Greg Doherty

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