The first voice you hear on Mikayla Simpson, AKA Koffee’s debut album belongs not to the 22-year-old singer, but to the late Bob Marley. Echoing samples from 1980’s Redemption Song weave around the sparse instrumentation on opener X10. His appearance shouldn’t be taken as some kind of benediction: the Marley estate has never been terribly selective when it comes to promoting the late Tuff Gong’s legacy, slapping his name on everything from skincare products 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 nevertheless, a Jamaican reggae artist opening their album with the sound of Jamaica’s most famous and revered musical figure is quite a ballsy move.
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 intended to say something about Simpson’s deep connection to reggae’s history. While her teenage friends in Spanish Town tended to like whatever was big at the time, she told Rolling Stone magazine in 2021, she “took to reggae and just made my own path”. Perhaps evoking the biggest crossover reggae star of all says something about the commercial ambitions behind Gifted. Jamaica hasn’t produced a huge mainstream pop star since Sean Paul, whose peak was 20 years ago, but Koffee sounds determined: “Might get caught up in a new wave,” she suggests on the title track, before offering to “chop the track up in a new way if it helps me get a few plays”.
Her career has developed a striking momentum. Two years ago, she became the first female artist ever to win the Grammy for best reggae album, despite the fact that Rapture clearly wasn’t an album: whichever way you sliced it, it was a distinct improvement on the previous year, when the Grammys deemed the best reggae album a collaborative work by Sting and Shaggy. She has been the recipient of a succession of high-profile co-signs: 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 tapped her to perform the theme song to the acclaimed western The Harder They Fall. Rumours abound that she’s working with Rihanna on the latter’s forthcoming reggae album: certainly, the singer’s beauty brand Fenty gets a namecheck among the torrent of high-end labels mentioned in Gifted’s lyrics.
In the past, Koffee has talked about the influence of Protoje on her work. If her brand of Rastafarianism and her politicking is noticeably gentler in its approach than that of her idol – you get a light sprinkling of references to Jah and a few snappy lines about gun violence on Gifted – she’s definitely taken on board the eclecticism of the reggae revival movement’s leading light. Gifted covers a lot of musical ground in less than half an hour, from the sweet, harmony-laden lovers rock of Lonely to Shine’s dabbling in the kind of easygoing acoustic reggae beloved of beach bars the world over, albeit underpinned by an immense electronic bass. The brief Defend veers close to trip-hop, and, with J-Hus collaborator Jae5 among the album’s producers, Koffee has a strong line in tracks influenced by Afrobeats: the title track melds a filtered sample of kids singing with a rhythm that shifts from sounding organic, as if it’s being banged out on congas and the body of an acoustic guitar, to fully electronic.
At its least inspired, the desire to appeal to a broad audience causes the album to stumble. Run Away is basically homogeneous AutoTune pop with a Jamaican accent. It may do the trick commercially but it undersells Koffee’s individuality. She’s better suited to the brand of laid-back party music that consumes the album’s final tracks. On Pull Up, Jae5’s production occupies a hugely appealing space somewhere between Afrobeats, dancehall and pop: it comes complete with a 1980s soul sax and a hook that’s impossible to dislodge from your brain. As her voice flips from toasting to smooth singing, the lyrics of West Indies evoke Lionel Richie’s All Night Long, with which it shares a certain dusk-settling, party-slowly-starting atmosphere, albeit via entirely different musical means.
Lockdown, meanwhile adopts an intriguingly ambiguous attitude to the end of Covid restrictions, Koffee’s desire for freedom tempered by the fear that a romance that’s bloomed over FaceTime may not work out “when di quarantine ting done and everybody touch road”. “Where will we go?” she asks, a line that seems simultaneously goggle-eyed at the thought of getting out and troubled by the prospect of where the relationship is heading. It’s smart and inventive, its sound commercial without doggedly following current trends: everything you might want in a crossover pop star, which Gifted may well make of Koffee.
This week Alexis listened to
Joel Ross – Prayer
The first fruit from vibraphonist Ross’s forthcoming album, The Parable of the Poet, is wonderful: a repetitious, tumbling riff that slowly, sedately opens up over six blissful minutes.