It would be hard to find someone who actively dislikes roots reggae. It would also be hard to find many truly great roots reggae albums recorded in the last decade or so. With Ancient Future, Protoje has created a record that isn’t merely a convincing imitation of the classics, but is a worthy addition to the canon in and of itself. The album pushes the boundaries of the genre, confidently incorporating elements from styles like dubstep, ska and hip-hop while remaining rooted in Protoje’s Rastafari beliefs and the sound of predecessors like Steel Pulse and Black Uhuru. Protoje is plugged into the current times, and there is an exciting sense here that the reggae revival movement he spearheads alongside artists like Chronixx and Kabaka Pyramid is reaching impressive heights of both artistic achievement and popular appeal.
Whereas Protoje’s last album, The 8-Year Affair, stuck somewhat too closely to the roots reggae formula, Ancient Future branches off considerably. You can hear it from the album’s first notes, as the lockstep bass weight and hip-hop synthesizers that start off “Protection” make it clear that you’ve entered a powerfully inventive sonic zone. Still, Protoje remains a follower of the conscious path laid down by reggae legends like Marley and Tosh. On “Protection,” Protoje invokes Jah to “empower the youth.” The track’s production style is faithful enough to an old-school riddim to please diehard reggae heads, while its polished synth arrangement makes it more palatable for younger fans, who might care more about Popcaan or Kanye than Natty Dread. While his cousin Donovan “Don Corleon” Bennett produced Protoje’s first two studio albums, for Ancient Future, Protoje switched to Winta James, whose style leans more heavily on the ‘80s vibe of producers like King Jammy and Junjo Lawes.
Ancient Future’s first single, “Who Knows,” released nearly a year ago, was arguably one of 2014’s best reggae tracks, so its inclusion here is hardly unwelcome. The song features Chronixx, who has quickly emerged as the reggae revival’s biggest star. The team-up of the two produces one of the catchiest moments on the record, melding Protoje’s conscious lines about poverty and hunger with Chronixx’s crooning refrain: I’m pleased to be chilling in the West Indies/Jah provides all my wants and needs/I got the sunshine, rivers and trees/Green leaves.
Protoje’s experimental streak holds strong throughout, with new instrumental choices and production techniques crafting an album full of stylistic variety that never seems forced, even as it veers into truly unexpected territory. On “Stylin’,” Protoje uses a Vocoder for a robot-in-love chorus that is more Kraftwerk than Peter Tosh. The next track, “Love Gone Cold” has almost no trace of reggae to it at all. Protoje sings, “The streets of Kingston, they do get so cold,” over a bouncing synth groove that sounds like pure ‘80s electro. Perhaps the album’s best track, “Sudden Flight” features Stevie Wonder-style harmonica playing and a breathtaking verse from young star-in-the-making Jesse Royal. Royal toasts in an old-school dancehall style, “So many a me brother them trap inna the plot/Glock full a shot but no food inna pot.” Combined with a sweet, uplifting chorus from Sevana, another young singer with a throwback sound, the track is a clear highlight of Ancient Future.
Although Protoje and his guests don’t shy away from the troubling social issues of today’s Jamaica, Ancient Future never gets bogged down in weary consciousness. The overall mood of the album is joyous positivity. Those “positive vibes and energies” are best exemplified by “Bubblin’,” a party anthem, on which Protoje encourages listeners to “get up off your seat.” Those listening, especially on nearby dance floors, will happily oblige. On the next track, “Answer to Your Name,” Protoje tells a story about searching for a departed lover, set in 1970s England. Winta James’ production mastery shines on the track, as he updates Toots and the Maytals-style ska with looping samples that fit Protoje’s retro-modern aesthetic. Ancient Future closes with an appearance from Kabaka Pyramid to round out the collective of major reggae revival players assembled by Protoje. That song, “The Flame,” functions as a sort of rallying cry for this rising movement, with a chorus insisting, “Forever the same, is only Jah love will remain/Forever the same, never the fortune or the fame.” Yet, Ancient Future is more than just “the same” roots reggae of decades past. Based around strong instrumentation, the riddim of “The Flame” bleeds into electronic experimentation, a Prince-esque guitar solo and stunning gospel harmonies.
Ancient Future is one of the most impressive achievements to come from the (so-called) reggae revival thus far, a cohesive statement that features many of the movement’s biggest players collaborating on a project that feels like a true heir to classic reggae albums of the ‘70s and ‘80s. The growing popularity of artists like Protoje, Chronixx, Kabaka Pyramid and Jesse Royal can only be a positive development for Jamaica, especially when their uplifting message is matched by the musical brilliance that shines through on this record.