The Guide to Getting Into Vybz Kartel
To know Kartel is to understand his complexity, so we give you eight entry points to the prolific dancehall artist, whose musical breadth and overall intelligence is often underestimated.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby
If you've ever heard agonizing groans immediately after the intro to "Miss Independent" starts playing, right when Ne-Yo segues into his Yeah, Yeah's, you're likely around Vybz Kartel fans. Vybz Kartel—born Adidja Palmer—is one of a handful of dancehall musicians who have a huge worldwide following. His influence is broad but he's still not as well known as a pop artist, per se. Nevertheless, his Spice-featuring "Romping Shop" record, which samples "Miss Independent," leaves many fans hopeful for his voice once the familiar rhythm starts booming from speakers. Kartel is far from the stereotypes of your typical entertainer; He's beyond stages and beyond seratos. He is an icon whose had social, cultural and political influence on his native, Jamaica, and in the genre he's dominated in, dancehall, even six years after being incarcerated (the artist is still releasing music, even though his is behind bars, and the politics of its legality are still up for question).
Some may argue that Black Kartel—the colloquial way fans refer to the artist and the records he made prior to his bleaching (the practice of lightening one's skin that is common, if controversial in Jamaica)—is a much stronger artist than the Kartel we see today. Lyrically speaking, this is a fair criticism. In 2009, the Jamaica Broadcasting Commission (JBC) began heavily regulating lyrical content on the radio, in part due to his longtime feuds with rivalling artists. The JBC began banning airplay for "any recording, live song or music video that promotes and/or glorifies the use of guns or other offensive weapons," as well as, "any recording, live song or music video which promotes or glorifies any offence against the person such as murder, rape, and mob violence or other offences such as arson." As a result, artists began to self-censor in order to get radio play, but Kartel still managed to dominate.
To know Kartel is to understand his complexity. A man whose musical breadth and overall intelligence is often underestimated, here are the eight sides to Vybz Kartel.
So you want to get into Influential Kartel?
Kartel's name alone is synonymous with controversy. Records like "Straight Jeans and Fitted"and "Colouring Book" have single-handedly been responsible for style trends in Jamaica. However, this is not an artist oblivious to his influential prowess, in fact he knows what power he possesses, but has denied social responsibility under the guise of his role as an entertainer.
Unfortunately, the expectation of responsibility is inescapable and it comes with fame's territory. Kartel has been strategic in how he's used his pull. He's used his status in mainly self-serving ways like promoting the viewership of his Flavor of Love-like reality show Teacha's Pet and the sales of his now-discontinued alcohol, Street Vybz Rum.
He's also used his records like "Cake Soap" and "Freaky Gal (Pt. 1)" to bring relatively taboo subjects, like bleaching and oral sex, into the public eye. Both practices definitely existed prior to his career but as he penned his thoughts into lyrics, which were subsequently consumed by dancehall fans, they were made topics of choice within public discourse, and normalized for other artists to talk about.
Playlist: Freaky Gal (Pt. 1) / Cake Soap / Straight Jeans and Fitted / Clarks ft. Popcaan and Gaza Slim / Street Vybz* / Teacha's Pet*/ Dancehall Hero / Dancehall / Colouring Book
So you want to get into Gaza vs. Gully Kartel?
Longtime rivalries have shaped various climates in Jamaica: The People's National Party vs the Jamaica Labour Party occupy the tensions within the country's political scene; Dancehall vs soca, and its influence on Brand Jamaica, dictate what music the country is willing to embrace on a global stage; But perhaps a feud which has trickled into all of these realms—music, culture and politics—is the one between Gaza and Gully.
Though Kartel hails from the city of Portmore, the hardships embedded within his lyrics are indicative of his life as a resident of the Waterford housing scheme. In sharing his narrative, via music, of the area riddled with economic strife and violence, it was dubbed Gaza to reflect the same violent adversity faced in Palestine. Kingston is home to Gully, an area where another dancehall artist, Movado, spent his childhood in Cassava Piece (literally, a line of homes alongside a gully). The rivalry between the two artists trickled into schools, politics and, of course neighborhoods, and was responsible for many injuries and deaths between their followers.
The feud ultimately hit its peak during Sting 2008. Sting, which was until last year, an annual one-night reggae and dancehall show, had a highly anticipated headline act: Both Vybz Kartel and Movado would share the same stage, literally and figuratively, putting the clash on on a platform for all to see. It was a dancehall fan's dream: A chance to see their favorite artists publicly go head-to-head in a lyrical and proverbial battle.
Kartel emerged from the stage ready for war. Literally. He walked out in full camouflage and military equipment. His opponent came out, donned in all black, and the two exchanged verses to a rowdy crowd until Movado left the stage mid-performance. Though, it's unclear who won—most would argue Kartel—a string of records came out from Kartel targeted towards the Gully god, with the first being "Last Man Standing." The moment ignited the rivalry, and there were many calls for the artists to settle their differences as the feud affected many aspects of the country's social life. The following year, at the 2009 West Kingston Jamboree the artists called a "truce"—though their battle has since restarted—ending what may have been one of the most contentious battles in dancehall's history, but it didn't finish without Kartel getting a few records off of his chest first.
Playlist: Last Man Standing / Gaza Commandments* / Pon Di Gaza* / Go Fi Dem Anyweh* / Get Gun Shot* / Gaza Christmas* / My Crew / Weh Dat Fah / Send Fi Mi Army / Weh Dem Feel Like / Betray Di Gaza Boss ft. Tommy Lee
So you want to get into Champion for the Poor Kartel?
Most of Kartel's most memorable lyrics are the ones that speak to his bravado or bold statements of his sexual prowess, but there's more to the artist than that. It's likely that prior to his convictions, his success as an artist afforded him the opportunity to move from Waterford into the upper echelons of Jamaica, but the artist never forgot where he came from.
Like hip-hop, dancehall records often get pegged as deviant. This is especially so for ones that share explicit details of poor people and their living conditions as well as the practices they employ to survive and navigate a system that doesn't grant them upward social mobility. Throughout his career, Kartel has made some poignant records that follow in the vein of "Life Sweet" and maintain the spirit and ambitions of people who live in poverty and aspire to get out. After all, he was once in their position. Although he's denied himself the role of being socially responsible, he's still acutely aware of who and what he is and what he represents.
Playlist: Unstoppable / Life Sweet / Bad Reputation / Ghetto Life / Reparation ft. Gaza Slim / My Scheme / Life We Living / Pressure / Money Me A Look / Ghetto Youth
So you want to get into Summer Anthem Kartel?
Close your eyes and think about summer. Remember that one record that you hear at every function that never got old? That's a summer anthem and the season would be incomplete if there wasn't a particular song to serve as a backdrop to all the parties, dances, and opportunities to be in the video light.
Though Kartel delivers hits all year, it's the records he's dropped between May and August that his fans really look forward to. These are the records that set the tone for the season and creating a summer banger solidifies your place as a dancehall artist (at least for the time being, as dancehall artists have a higher output of records per annum than artists from other genres). Plus, your track will almost always be ranked as the number one song to dance to, for example, who knew Fever would be the score to this amazing display of synchronized water wining?
Playlist: Summertime / Fever / Hey Addi / Party / Pretty Position / Credit Alone Done / Dumpa Truck / Bicycle / Gaza Ting A Ling / Wine For Me* / Tek Buddy Gyal / Ni Ni Ni* / Summer 16 / U Nuh Have A Phone / Western Union
So you want to get into Collaboration Kartel?
Ashanti and Ja Rule, Sonny and Cher, and—as a loyal Beyhive member I can confidently say—Beyoncé and Jay Z have nothing on a Vybz Kartel collaboration record. The artist's call-and-response records with women dancehall deejays are guaranteed hits both in and out of the club.
For women dancehall artists, collaborations with an artist like Kartel can provide visibility, which he's definitely leveraged for his former Portmore Empire artists Gaza Slim (Vanessa Slim), Gaza Kim, Gaza Sheba, and Gaza Indu. Songs like Vanessa Bling's One Man and Gaza Indu's Know Bout Mi were the artists' introduction to the world, which afforded them the opportunity to pull fans from his huge base into their own. The most notable record of this kind is "Romping Shop." The artist teamed up with then-rising dancehall star, Spice, to produce the raunchy record that sampled Ne-Yo's "Miss Independent." Prior to the video's release, photos "leaked" of the two in an intimate position, though, it's been speculated that it was a marketing technique to promote the record. Nevertheless, it still slapped. The record was able to peak at #76 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip Hop Songs charts, despite it being a dancehall record.
Playlist: Romping Shop ft. Spice / You & Him Deh / Gal A Weh Me Duh Yuh ft. Sheba / Gaza Man Mi Name/ Mi Nah ft. Sheba* / Like A Jockey ft. Gaza Slim / Can't Do Without Me ft. Gaza Slim / Anything A Anything ft. Gaza Slim / Conjugal Visit ft. Spice
Honorable Mentions (These are not call-and-response, per se, but these collaborations with female artists did really well): Loodi ft. Shenseea, Virginity ft. Gaza Indu, Washer Dryer ft. Ishawna
So you want to get into Shakespeare Kartel?
"In my view, Kartel is not merely a deejay, but also a poet of Shakespearean status." The artist delivered this statement during his lecture to a group of students at the University of the West Indies' (UWI) Mona campus in 2011. Though Shakespeare has been canonized as the literary genius, the prose and themes Kartel explores within his lyrics are just as sophisticated. We love an artist with duality, and Kartel proves to be that artist on records like "The Lyricist," where he says, "Still The Lyricist, Vocabulary Physicist, Melody Michelangelo weh paint da graphic images/Get a condom fi yuh ears because da tune yah shot like syphilis."
Don't let the presence of the riddims fool you. The marrying of words in dancehall can be quite inventive. I mean, which of your faves can casually drop in "oxtail" and "chicken back steak" in a verse (which he does on "Hold It")? Probably no one. Whether it be likening the human anatomy to cars (which he seems to be very fond of), spitting bars over hip-hop production, or using metaphors and similes–especially to illustrate his favorite intimate pleasures—Kartel's vocabulary is peak creativity.
Playlist: Bike Back / Benz Punany / The Lyricist / The Lyricist Pt. II* / 6'7* / Touch Ah Button / Colouring This Life / Eva Bless / Like Xmas / Bend Like Banana / Hold It / Mhm Hm
So you want to get into Portmore Empire Kartel?
In 2009, Kartel began to solidify his influence within dancehall by taking other artists under his wing. These artists—Popcaan, NotNice, Tommy Lee Sparta, Vanessa Bling aka Gaza Slim, Merital Family, Shawn Storm, Blak Ryno, Sheba, Lisa Hype, Jah Vinci, Gaza Indu, Gaza Kim, Dotta Coppa, Doza Medicine—became part of what was the Portmore Empire: a collective of artists ushering in the new wave of dancehall. Kartel gave the artists exposure and guidance in the industry and in return they gave him their loyalty. Naturally, as Kartel began to bump heads with Movado and his Alliance collective, so too did members of Empire.
Unfortunately, upon Kartel's incarceration, the group began to disintegrate. Some members, like Gaza Kim, Blak Ryno and NotNice, ended things on bitter terms, with Kim and Ryno said they were beaten and NotNice stating that recording equipment was taken from his studio. In 2016, a few of the members seemed to be on good terms with their former mentor, but the relationship that has caught the most attention for its lack of resolution is the one between Kartel and Popcaan.
In a recent BBC Radio 1Xtra interview when Popcaan talked about his current position in dancehall, he mentioned, "A lot of people used to hate Vybz Kartel, but him stay on top, and mi learn dat from him. That is why, even if Vybz Kartel hates Popcaan today, I will forever be on top, cause mi learn dat from him."
NotNice, Tommy Lee, and Popcaan, have arguably seen the most success since their departure from the collective. Conflict aside, Portmore Empire was on its way to being a force within the dancehall scene and the then-brewing criminal charges, which involved Empire member Shawn Storm, upended its potential.
Playlist: My Crew / Empire Forever ft. Popcaan, Shawn Storm and Gaza Slim* / Duss Medley ft. Popcaan, Jah Vinci, Shawn Storm and Maxwell* / Klappaz Riddim Medley ft. Popcaan, Shawn Storm, Tommy Lee, Black Diamon, Jahmiel* / England Town Empire Medley ft. Blak Ryno, Jah Vinci, Gaza Kim, Sheba* / One Man ft. Vybz Kartel / Clarks ft. Popcaan and Gaza Slim / Know Bout Mi ft. Gaza Indu / Empire Army
So you want to get into Hardcore Dancehall Kartel?
In the 1970s, when dancehall began to emerge, it was understood as the music of Jamaica's poorest citizens. The genre has been lambasted for how some of its artists articulate their views on homosexuality, its promotion of hypermasculinity, and lyrics that are often steeped in violence. However, one of the most enjoyed parts of the genre is how both male and female artists speak to sexuality and sexual prowess.
If there's any dancehall artist who's mastered pairing deliciously forbidden lyrics for your listening—and brukking out—pleasure, it's Kartel. Sure, some fans love the artist's lyricism and controversiality, but it can be agreed upon that they all collectively love when he delivers those hardcore, slack verses that dancehall is known for. Including some of the aforementioned records, Kartel's catalogue is filled with songs fi di gyal dem.
Playlist: All Out / Go Go Wine / Gwan Suh / Turn & Wine / Come Breed Me / Better Can Fuck / Romping Shop / Tek Buddy Gyal / Pretty Position / Dumpa Truck / Bicycle / Bike Back / Tun Up Di Fuck / Good Night / No Bed
In the previously mentioned lecture at UWI, Kartel said, "My music is a friend to some people and a foe to others, but that is totally acceptable to me based on the mere fact that dancehall itself has always been social commentary reflecting the duplicitous foundation of the Jamaican experience." This statement exemplifies Vybz Kartel's polarity and self-awareness of his position within the broader Jamaican society. He's played a unique and unprecedented role as an entertainer, dictating much more than celebrities are supposed to. Even though he's had a role in some unfortunate situations—namely, his current murder charges and fueling unrest with his musical rivals—he's also brought people together with his music and contributed significantly to the trajectory, exposure, and overall culture and genre that is dancehall.
*Denotes a song that isn't available on streaming services.
Dancehall is Sharine's everyting. Follow her on Twitter.