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Agent Sasco - Hope River Music Album Reviews

Following his high-profile features on records by Kanye and Kendrick Lamar, the veteran dancehall deejay returns with an idiosyncratic album that subtly challenges the conventions of dancehall itself.

To many listeners, veteran dancehall MC (or, deejay, as they would say in Jamaica) Assassin, aka Agent Sasco, may be known solely as the rough baritone bawling “Action ting, yo a badman ting” on “I’m in It,” a particularly dark and raunchy LP cut on Kanye West’s 2013 opus Yeezus. It’s an unforgettable irruption into an album packed with thrilling moments, largely due to Sasco’s unforgettable voice: a vocal attack that might best be visualized as a river of gravel rendered capable of human speech. Yet within the all-encompassing scale of the Kanye-verse, Sasco’s contribution to Yeezus was such a footnote that his writer’s credit (listed under his government name, Jeffrey Campbell) was attributed by some outlets to a guy who designs shoes. It would not be any underestimation of Sasco’s talent to point out that Kanye used his powerful voice and undeniable flow as a sort of instrument, a particularly bold timbre with which to offset the other colors (de-tuned 808s, say, or pitched-up Nina Simone samples) comprising the aural painting that is Yeezus.

Sasco’s voice filled that role so well, in fact, that it wasn’t long before he was called on by another rap auteur to add his instrument of mic destruction to yet another multi-textured opus, and in 2015, he brought the whiff of scorched earth to Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry.” Its early release as a teaser for To Pimp a Butterfly ensured that it would be many fans’ first real glimpse of the album’s themes; it also helped cement Sasco’s place as someone who could be counted on to provide the oracular role within Lamar’s latter-day tragedies, a wrathful prophet with a distinctly Kingstonian cadence to his fiery declamations.

These two high-profile features embody a sea-change of sorts in the ever-shifting dance between hip-hop and dancehall reggae. Sasco is being called on to provide neither gangster credibility nor a catchy, shake-your-ass hook; it’s pure gravitas. But what’s just as notable is how these cameos have in turn affected Sasco’s own art. His album Hope River is powerful evidence that he came away from them a changed deejay, determined to be his own auteur as well as his own instrument.

The first clue that Hope River might be read as a post-Yeezus dancehall album is the stark and bass-heavy palette from which it draws. Eschewing the bright keyboard riffs and lilting Afropop melodies that define much of modern dancehall, Sasco’s more melodic hooks are fleshed out with funereal organ chords and metal-pipe snares, but the album consists mostly of several subtly different flavors of overmodulated bass, ranging in texture from rubber to mud.

“Change,” featuring Stonebwoy, Kabaka Pyramid, and Spragga Benz, is a perfect example of the impact that’s possible with skillful use of this palette, and it is used to equally spooky effect on the album openers “Energy River” and “Banks of the Hope” (the Hope River is both a real body of water that flows just north of Kingston and a guiding metaphor for the album’s lyrical themes, a sort of secular scripture premised on forward motion against all odds, no matter how daunting). There are side channels to this general flow. “Mama Prayed” and “My Song” carry the listener through gospel territory, while “New Day” is roots reggae of the kind that would be recognizable as such to contemporaries of Bob Marley. But for the most part, Sasco seems very tightly focused on developing Hope River’s distinct sound world and increasing the vocal textures he can create with in it, from echoey whisper to full wrath-of-god baritone. It feels as if Sasco deliberately wants to subvert the expectations placed on dancehall.

There is some precedent for this approach. If there is a third star alongside Yeezus and TPAB in Hope River’s guiding constellation, it is undoubtedly ‘Til Shiloh, the landmark 1995 LP from Buju Banton, to whom Assassin’s voice has been often compared. Shiloh saw Buju abandon the raunchy lyrics and fast bogle riddims that made him a star in favor of a quieter, acoustic approach that caught many fans by surprise. It’s an influence Sasco hints at in the way his chanting flow wraps around the nyabinghi drums of “Winning Right Now”; there’s another clue in a sampled snippet of a 2004 Buju interview wherein he namechecks the younger deejay as a talent to watch.

Ultimately, however, Hope River simply does not deliver the highs that could stand up next to the truly great LPs that are its primary influences. All three of those albums spawned huge singles which nevertheless fit into the overall album statement. But Hope River sometimes feels like all glue and no glitter, composed entirely of the kinds of moody album cuts and codas that can give a great album depth and coherence, but without the standout songs that give it, well, altitude. Coming from a genre where most LP releases are really just collections of 45s or dancehall singles from a particular year or studio, Sasco delivers an idiosyncratic dancehall concept LP with nary a dancehall hit—let alone a cultural touchstone on the scale of “Alright” or “Black Skinhead.”

This is a bold move in and of itself for a dancehall artist, and it feels deliberate, even willful, on Sasco’s part, adding a kind of enigmatic satisfaction even to its limitations. If Hope River falls far short of greatness, it falls short in such an original way—not only a milestone in Sasco’s personal evolution but perhaps even subtly altering the course of the wider river that is dancehall itself—that it is almost certain to be a sort of sleeper hit with the fans it does find. In that sense, perhaps the best key to his project here is not the riverine theme or the single “Change” but the collaboration with Toronto’s Kardinal Offishall that immediately follows it, “Legacy.” Over a bed of hauntingly distorted choral voices and pulsing bass, Sasco growls about eagles in cages before cutting to the chase: “You’ll never see you dream if you nuh brave/That’s why you’ll never see the critics on the stage.../Let me tell you what you’ll never see/You’ll never see your own legacy.” More water may have to pass under the bridge before we see what ripples are created by Sasco’s odd, contrarian, and highly personal statement.

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