His 2004 debut album “Challenges” was an impressive introduction to the Jamaican market deserving of a much wider audience. His sophomore effort “Parables” featured the most popular reggae song of 2007 “She’s Royal”, won critical praise throughout the Caribbean Diaspora and almost single handedly heralded a roots reggae renaissance. And now, with an August 4th release of his much-anticipated third set “Contagious” on Cannon Productions, distributed by VP Records, Tarrus Riley reaffirms that he is one of finest singer/songwriters of his generation, irrespective of musical genre.
Grounded in a roots reggae tradition that is recast with a gleaming 21st century sheen courtesy of the album’s primary producer, venerable saxophonist Dean Fraser, “Contagious” remarkably shifts between smoothly crooned lover’s rock and artful Rastafarian declarations, provocative commentaries and dancehall’s combustible edge, its cohesion provided by Tarrus’s spectacularly emotive vocals and reliably inspiring words. As its title indicates, this highly infectious collection of 18 songs is characterized by symptoms of melodiousness, rapturous roots rhythms and hard hitting lyrical realities that are transmitted through repeated spins, resulting in a high grade musical fever from which you will not want to recover. “The reason why I called it “Contagious” is because I would love for everyone to catch it,” says Tarrus. “I don’t want my music to have boundaries of race, age, nationality or religion; I represent reggae, live music, and I want everyone to catch on to its positive, good vibes. ”
Tarrus Riley (born Omar Riley) is the son of veteran Jamaican singer Jimmy Riley, formerly of the vocal trio The Uniques, and a nurse, Lavern Tatham, so he refers to his songs as “healing music”. Tarrus recorded his earliest singles as a precocious teenager for his father’s Love and Promotion label but it was his mother who played the premier role in encouraging his musical talents; she suggested he adopt his birth sign, Taurus, as his stage name back when he was deejaying over dancehall beats. “I came into this music as a deejay, I thought singing was boring, I couldn’t relate to it,” Tarrus reveals. “But when I started writing songs and really learned about music I started to appreciate singing. After a while deejaying started to feel a little limited and I wanted to sing more and get into songwriting.”
He did just that and by the time he released “Challenges” in 2004 he had tweaked the spelling of his name to Tarrus and sang on each of his self-penned tracks. Impeccably produced by Dean Fraser, “Challenges” (which VP rereleased in 2008) yielded several Jamaican hits including the unwavering Rastafarian statement “Barber Chair” and a joyous celebration of music “Take Me Higher”. Tarrus’s career accelerated into high gear with VP Records’ October 2006 release of his second album “Parables”, another brilliant production endeavor by Dean Fraser, which Billboard Magazine cited as “the quintessence Jamaica’s roots reggae revival”. The album yielded such chart toppers as the touching acoustic tribute to his infant daughter “Can’t Sleep”, a haunting reggae rendition of John Legend’s “Stay With You” and the indomitable “She’s Royal” which extols female regality and made Tarrus Riley a household name across the Caribbean. “She’s Royal” won almost every music award for which it was nominated throughout 2007-2008 including a six trophy royal sweep at Jamaica’s inaugural Reggae Academy Awards in February 2008. “I don’t think I can express how it feels to have a song that popular but I love the impact it has had,” notes Tarrus. “It really helps women feel proud and that’s what I am about, making people feel good about themselves.”
Good feelings are easily spread throughout “Contagious”. Tarrus returns to the rapid-fire deejaying of his Taurus days on “Good Girl Gone Bad” (featuring rising dancehall star Konshens) produced by Tarik “Russian” Johnston and he deftly trades rhymes with DeMarco and Vybz Kartel on the hymn to ganja “Herb Promotion”, which he produced alongside Dean Fraser and Demarco.
“Contagious” is dominated by exquisitely sung roots reggae anthems couched in magnificent musical textures created by Grafton and Tuff Gong studios sovereignty including Sly and Robbie on drum and bass, guitarists Mitchum “Khan” Chin and Cat Coore, keyboardist Robbie Lyn and Dean Fraser’s impassioned sax styling.
“Contagious” begins with the spirited rhymes delivered by veteran deejay Joe Lickshot who juxtaposes the singer’s name with that of a similarly titled automatic weapon, the Taurus: “When I say Tarrus Riley, I don’t mean the big black one you keep inna your waist I mean the big black one who a sing inna the place”. Lickshot’s intro neatly segues into “Living the Life of A Gun” a brilliant antidote to the spiraling rate of gun crimes in Jamaica and the preponderance of dancehall tunes glorifying gun usage. Over a bass heavy one-drop rhythm Tarrus gives a voice to the Taurus, asking, “What dem make gun for, me no see no good whey it do round yah (here)?”
Harsh judgments often times leads to reckless actions so Tarrus cautions, “Don’t Judge”, the song’s gorgeous melody and bubbling backbeat enhancing its powerful message. Random brutality, war and an array of social injustices prompts the contemplative “Why So Much Wickedness?” a personal statement that delivers a profound consideration on the human condition with a resounding horn section providing the song’s bold refrain.
A proliferating act of wickedness is violence against women, which Tarrus forthrightly addresses in “Start A New” (produced by Shane Brown), urging the song’s female protagonist to leave her abusive man. As a means of calling greater attention to this malady, Tarrus has established a non funded, anti domestic violence campaign, Start A New in which he, Blak Soil, Majah , the Area Yutes Foundation, Miss Jamaica 2007 Yendi Phillips and an assortment of artists regularly visit schools and speak to children from some of the island’s most troubled communities about the violence which many of them are exposed each day. “We put on plays, perform and talk to the kids about things that touch their lives and violence is a part of that,” he explains, “and they really appreciate that we would take the time to do that.”
Whether the violence is domestic, perpetrated by gang warfare or prompted by battling religious factions, it’s toxicity is counteracted on the sublime “Let Peace Reign” with Tarrus’s earnest tenor complemented by the stunning voices of Etana and Duane Stephenson on this inspiring call to unity: “To all the people of the world, let peace reign, don’t care how you call Him name, Jah hear us just the same, no make sense we fight, let us unite, let peace reign.”
“This is reality music, I am a Rasta man, but I am not offending anyone in the sense of preaching against any religion,” says the bespectacled singer who delivers the track “I Sight” as an expression of the preeminent role of Rastafari in his life. “I wear glasses but the way I look at things is through Rastafari, that gives me eye sight; anything I deal with is according to the teachings of His Imperial Majesty (Emperor Haile Selassie I whom Rastafarians regard as the Messiah) or Marcus Garvey (Jamaican born founder of the Back to Africa movement whose visionary writings are a cornerstone of Rastafarian tenets).” A simple yet stirring invocation to His Majesty is expressed on “King Selassie” underscored by evocative Nyabinghi drumming and a rousing violin solo played by Peter Ashborne.
In an assured sing-jay style Tarrus cautions about the perils of envy on “Stop Watch” (produced by Colin “Bulby York and Lynford “Fatta” Marshall) just as skillfully as he adapts a soulful lead on “Mankind”, a clarion call for all men and women to be kind to each other.
Tarrus’s signature hit “She’s Royal” was obviously a ladies favorite and they are his primary audience for the lovers rock selections “Soul Mate” (produced by Joel Chin and the Professionals) “Young Hearts”, (produced by Christopher Price for the U.K.’s Peckings Productions), the acoustic “It Will Come”, written by guitarist Lamont Savory from Tarrus’s Blak Soil band, and an enchanting reggae reinterpretation of Robin Thicke’s sentimental “Superman”.
The title-inspired track “Love’s Contagious” reworks the majestic one-drop rhythm from Bob Marley’s immortal “Coming in From the Cold” as it details that untreatable sweet sickness. There isn’t an effective remedy for the heartbreak of infidelity, which is explored over a hypnotic tempo on “S-Craving”. Tarrus sings; “It’s all in the game. . .man and women cyan tame, be careful how you play”. One might say its “Human Nature”, which Tarrus reinterprets here as Fraser’s elegantly nuanced production reshapes Michael Jackson’s 1982 pop masterpiece into a reggae triumph that topped the charts in several Caribbean countries.
While it may seem unnecessary for a renowned singer/songwriter to cover well-known hits Tarrus says doing so represents his maturation in the music business and helps broaden the appeal of “Contagious”. “Once upon a time you could never get me to cover a song, I just wanted to do my own thing,” he admits, “but when you evolve and other people’s thing seems sensible, why not? It’s all about trying different things to make a positive contribution to reach the people and I have because “Contagious” has something for everyone.”