Buju Banton: Born for Greatness

Though released to relatively muted fanfare, Born for Greatness, the new studio album from veteran reggae star Buju Banton, still arrives with great expectations attached. Banton was already the first artist to break Bob Marley’s record for No. 1 singles in Jamaica by 1995, when he released ’Til Shiloh—arguably the greatest full-length statement of the era in which dancehall dominated the Jamaican charts. That LP represented roughly what Illmatic did for East Coast rap or Voodoo for neo-soul—an artistic peak which simultaneously signaled a sea change for an entire genre. It is also like those records in the sense that Buju has been shadowboxing with its legacy ever since, producing a deep catalog of classic compositions, but never quite achieving an album that rivaled its coherence or power.

The opening moments of Born for Greatness—strummed acoustic guitar and an eerily echoed and sped-up vocal sample, anchored by a simple knocking beat—are a departure from Buju’s last outing, Upside Down 2020. That album contained a number of compelling songs, but it was almost as if he jumped erratically between styles and decades, attempting, perhaps, to make up for the time lost during his extended incarceration in the U.S. on highly questionable drug charges. In some ways, BFG’s spare, haunting beginning marks a return to the ’90s sound of ’Til Shiloh, which is a good thing: The skeletal beat provides the perfect bed for Buju’s gruff baritone, famously the most gravelly in a genre wherein booming, bassy vocals are a form of combat. Here, the recently returned Buju measures up admirably against his younger self.

The “missing” years of Buju’s imprisonment are the grist for “Ageless Time,” the first cut on Born for Greatness. It raises themes that reverberate throughout the rest of the album: the self-examination and doubt that arise from isolation, the powerlessness felt in the face of passing time. The articulation of these feelings will resonate with many listeners’ experiences of the pandemic, though the lyrics here and on “Yard and Outta Road” ground them in Buju’s humbling fall from grace during his trial and conviction in Florida. “Ageless Time” feels like a declaration that this album will wrestle with bigger demons than other recent work, and it’s also a formidable vocal performance. Buju chants seamlessly through the rhythm, moving between both raspy exhalations and unaspirated downdrafts, like the soundclash equivalent of circular breathing. The song was co-written by Stephen Marley, a longtime ally of Buju’s, and Marley’s unmistakable touch appears in its melodic lines and delivery, which function as a natural complement to Buju’s style.

The next track, “Life Choices,” is a slow take on a classic, three-cornered dancehall beat, but reinforces the idea that the rhythms and production on Born for Greatness will, uncharacteristically for a dancehall record, take a back seat. The result emphasizes the strengths in Buju’s unique vocal approach without chasing current trends, but just when BFG appears to be hitting its stride, the title track derails its momentum with a mission statement that feels scripted and uncomfortable. Over a piano-driven instrumental best described as affirmation-fueled pop-rap—think Macklemore or Lizzo—Buju applies a double-time trap cadence to couplets about superstars, super cars, and supermodels. It feels very much like he is filling in a template cut for some other artist.

Likewise, on “Yard and Outta Road”—another examination of the trials and tribulations he experienced while living in the States—striking insights are marred by generic lines like “To shot callers who run every yard/Keep it real, 1,000, dog.” By the time he croons, “For the homies not coming home, I pray to the lawd,” Buju sounds less like a Rasta preacher and more like a gym teacher attempting to relate to his students by lacing his pep talk with the latest slang—and one who ends up missing the mark by five to 10 semesters. On the heartfelt hook, his voice jumps up a notch to a plaintive mid-tone reminiscent of his fellow reggae titan Sizzla. It’s the closest Buju may ever come to a falsetto, and it's not his most comfortable register. What should be the album’s center is instead like a cringey wrong turn, and where the first two tracks felt lean, this sounds like little more than a click track, a guide beat for an unfinished idea.

Though these are big missteps, they are, thankfully, momentary. In between them lies “Coconut Wata (Sip),” on which Buju ably wraps his voice around a slow-grind beat. “Body Touching Body,” featuring Victoria Monét, hits in the same baby-making zone, a mode that allows Buju to conduct a master class in riding a riddim, even if the subject matter is more worldly. These slow-wine tunes also feel the most of-the-moment, and would fit easily into a set with Koffee, Jorja Smith, or Tems, even if they’re stylistically distinct. Like a movie wherein the actors find chemistry between their characters even when the overall plotline falters, Born for Greatness reveals an EP’s worth of quiet, strong material in its smoldering torch songs.

The rest of the album proceeds in this one-step forward, one-step back fashion. It presents Buju as confident (and surprisingly grounded) on the most low-key and lighthearted cuts, including “Feel a Way,” which features vocals from Stephen Marley, or “Plans,” the LP’s only nod to the current JA trap or “chop” sound. Yet he inexplicably pivots away from his strengths on what should be the tentpole moments, like “We Find a Way,” the saccharine one drop of “Nuff Love for You,” or “High Life,” a perfectly good weed tune ruined almost entirely by Snoop Dogg’s nasal and weirdly arrhythmic attempt at a verse in Patois.

Born for Greatness resoundingly fails to deliver on its title’s promise. In fact, it mostly falls short where it strives for gravitas. Yet, it may, oddly, sneakily, deliver something better. On its less solemn tracks, it bears the good news that one of the greatest voices that Jamaica has gifted us is still evolving, still in champion form—at least when he allows himself to go off-message.

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Buju Banton: Born for Greatness