Atlantic Records is hosting an exclusive party on the roof terrace of its plush Kensington offices to launch Imperial Blaze, the fourth album by Jamaican dancehall and reggae superstar Sean Paul. Around 100 journalists, music-industry types and hangers-on are enjoying coconut rum cocktails, piña coladas, Red Stripe and a Caribbean barbecue, as the sun hides behind charcoal clouds. Miraculously, the threatened cloudburst never happens and Sean Paul’s parade isn’t rained on.
The arrival of a burly bodyguard heralds Paul’s imminent entrance and the 36-year-old Jamaican glides onto the terrace wearing oversized tortoiseshell shades; two chunky, navel-grazing silver chains (a dazzling crucifix and skull); baggy jeans; Adidas hi-tops; and a black leather biker jacket, his corn rows falling on either side of his neck. He takes the microphone and tips it upwards like a drink to greet the audience, revealing a super-sized jewelled watch and chunky silver bracelet. He has all the trappings of a 12million album-selling dancehall reggae hero turned worldwide pop phenomenon.
Paul introduces Imperial Blaze song by song and, between each track, works the room: chatting, touching fists, shaking hands with an elaborate flourish, posing for photos, dancing (occasionally alone but mostly by taking the hand of the nearest woman) and whispering in the ears of female journalists, label execs and waiting staff. He extends an invitation to the myriad women to party with him in London tonight. This is the Sean Paul the public knows and adores: the all-singing, all-dancing, sweet-talking lover man, whose exhilarating blend of dancehall, reggae and rap sets dance floors on fire.
The next day, at the Sanderson, the hotel of choice for celebrities in London, ARISE sees a very different side to the man born Sean Paul Ryan Francis Henriques. As I enter the pristine white suite, he’s cracking a drawn-out joke, in a cockney accent, to ARISE’s photographer. As we settle on the sofa, I pass him a copy of ARISE and ask about last night’s partying. “I didn’t go partying, sir. No, sir. The coconut rum destroyed me – destroyed my brain cells, and I’ve had to build them back. To tell you the truth sir, I’ve not had any sleep in 25 days,” he teases. “Because of this, I came to this country thinking I was invincible and I drank a flask of rum at the event yesterday and now I’m feeling very ill and sick, and I have to do this interview. I’m joking, I’m joking.”
Paul is in promo mode, even though he disguises it through easygoing banter and wisecracks. “In the last six months I’ve hardly done any shows, just finished the album and got myself ready forrrrrrrr…” he says, rolling the ‘r’ to build anticipation “… this battle between me and the people. I have to prove myself to them because I am their king. I am the king of dancehall music and I have to prove that I am worthy, a worthy king to represent them. I am the Imperial Blaze.”
Does he look to improve with each album? “Not each album but each song – you need a standard that makes people feel, ‘that’s Sean Paul, boy’, and say, ‘that sounds like his voice, but what he’s doing ain’t Sean Paul, what he is doing sounds ridiculous [meaning a good thing],’” he declares. “Maybe some things sound new to people but they can always say, ‘Sean Paul’s hardcore with his flow and his melodies are always sing-able and happy’. That’s my standard. I want people to recognise me, feel that good feeling, be happy and smile and dance.”
Paul’s acutely aware of his USP: three massive singles – Gimme The Light, Like Glue and Get Busy – from his 2002, Grammy-winning LP Dutty Rock made the six million people around the world who bought the record ‘be happy, smile and dance’ and instantly made him into an international pop icon.
Gimme The Light, a clarion call to get high; bump and grind anthem Like Glue; and the hypnotic calypso of ‘sexy gyal’ celebration Get Busy reverberated through car and nightclub speakers and enjoyed heavy rotation across radio and music TV channels from Kingston to London, via Lagos, Miami and Mumbai. The trinity of hits capture Paul’s unparalleled ability to frame dancehall’s hardcore themes in pop terms, without diluting its raw, innovative sonics (unlike, say, Shaggy’s dancehall/reggae- lite), while also bringing hip hop into the mix.
His energetic stage shows, something he’s worked hard to improve over the years, complete the pop star package. In 2004, he delivered a breathtakingly electric performance at Brixton Academy to a more diverse audience than Kanye West’s at the same venue later that year. Unusually, the audience spanned generations, with mothers and daughters screaming in unison. Paul’s not prepared to short change this hard-earned, committed fan base with sub-standard releases. Indeed it’s four years – the equivalent of a decade in the fast-paced world of dancehall – since his last album, The Trinity, added three more hits (We Be Burnin’, Temperature and Ever Blazin’) to his growing collection.
“People know when the heart and soul is not there in a record,“ says Paul. “That’s what I’m saying with this record, it means something to me I’m proving myself back to you. This is my way of saying; you the people, put three of my songs at number one. That’s thanks to y’all. You made me the king, I have to prove it to you and here I am with the new thing. What am I? I’m the king’s fire. Why are you the king’s fire? You have made me the king; I am just the energy and you gave me the title.”
Translate the bombast and Paul’s saying he draws inspiration from what’s around him, echoing roots reggae’s philosophy of the inter-connectedness between people, and man and nature. “In Jamaica we say, ‘I got this song’ [I made this song] and when you ask, ‘Where did you get this song?’ People say ‘I got it from an inspiration’. What kind of inspiration is that? It’s people and the world around us. The word ‘Koran’ means to recite, and dancehall and rap is to recite what’s in your heart, so it’s spiritual to me,” he explains.
Our conversation stalls as something in ARISE, which he’s been leafing through avidly as we talk, catches his gaze – a portrait of a calm and collected Barack Obama, eyes shut, moments before his inauguration. “Sorry, sorry,” says Paul, snapping back to reality. “I was looking at this picture of Obama. He’s praying. He’s standing, about to become the president, and has his eyes closed, praying. Wicked.”
It’s as if a switch has been flicked and we’re now with Sean Paul, the person, rather than Sean Da Paul, the global celebrity. His answers become punctuated by pauses because he’s thinking about what he’s saying, rather than reading from a script.
“There are certain people in the pop world who have a unique niche, I’m not a fully hip hop or fully dancehall artist,” he admits. “I speak for dancehall and reggae but my style and the way I present myself is a blend of different things that I’ve grown to love over the years. I love hip hop music and love dancehall music, and when I make music that’s how it comes out. I love rock music. I love the rock type of dressing and [the] hip hop type of dressing. There’s a time and place for everything. If I’m on the red carpet,
I’ll wear a suit, nice frames and none of this,” he says, shaking his crucifix and skull. He’s clearly intelligent and quick off the mark, and has an uncanny habit of finishing off your sentences: I ask if it’s difficult to represent influences even when… “They’re not from your own culture?” he interjects. “At an early age, we had books but we never had computers or video. TV would be on from 5pm to midnight, and news was a big part of that. My childhood was books, National Geographic channel, my mum telling stories, and a couple trips to Canada,” he explains.
“I went to Hillel Academy, which is a Jewish school but all denominations go there: Catholics, Baptists, Jewish... It was the school of many affluent people from society. I took music classes, had different experiences that weren’t available in every primary school in Jamaica.” Paul hails from comfortable uptown, rather than downtown, Kingston. His parents represented the Jamaican swimming team in the Olympics and met by the poolside. His mother, who he mentions repeatedly, is a renowned Jamaican painter and a major influence. So much so that Paul’s written a song for her – the gentle roots reggae song Straight From My Heart – that features on Imperial Blaze.
“I was writing a poem, a lickle note for her, and it turned into a song. It’s one of the most important songs of my career. People think my music is masculine and I’m overbearing to ladies, and I wanted to show it’s not what I’m all about. It’s a big part of me, definitely, but there’s a side that is thoughtful, careful of what I do, responsible and influenced by her upbringing of me,” he says.
“My father wasn’t around a lot. By the time I was 13, he went to prison and, although I still link with him to this day, he really didn’t have much to do with my upbringing, apart from that he’s my dad and I’m proud of him. So I owe a lot to her. I played it to her on her birthday, she bawled and I bawled,” recalls Paul. Twenty-four hours later, ARISE’s tour of West London rooftop barbecues continues as MTV Base films Sean Paul’s Top 50 Summer Sizzlers. It’s blazing hot and British urban stars Ironik, Tinchy Stryder, Bashy, Chipmunk, Mz Bratt and Master Shortie, their managers, TV production crew, and scenesters desperate to glimpse ‘Sean Peezy’ are out in force. Paul’s teamed his white t-shirt with white-rimmed shades. His silver chains match his trainers and he’s sporting a backpack, somehow looking effortless while wielding a burger flipper.
Paul doesn’t just do what’s required and escape, he gives 150 per cent. For over three hours, he’s totally focused. His swagger is cocksure as he cracks jokes and barbecues burgers and sausages. He leans into Mz Bratt and whispers in her ear, making her giggle, as they record a link. He finds the time to pass on sage advice to 21-year-old rapper Tinchy Stryder who declares he’s cool with losing his No1 position in the UK singles charts as he likes the song that’s deposed him. “Humble people go far, this guy’s gonna be a star,” says Paul.
Sean Paul – the person and the superstar – comes across as supremely confident, but the burden of expectation with his new LP and his own exacting standards still weighed heavily on his not-particularly broad shoulders.
“I realised I was pressing it too hard,” he explains, “so I decided to relax, not tour so much, learn the drums – which I’d been thinking about for a while – chill and learn to produce. I had these outlets – producing, drumming, socialising and running – that I could enjoy, and come back with a fresh mind.” “I’ve got a lot of people on the roster – like my band, which is four people plus two engineers – who are always asking, ‘When are we touring?’ Then I have two dancers and back-up singer. All these people are waiting. That feels like pressure,” he admits.
Imperial Blaze subtly evolves Sean Paul’s good-time dancehall and reggae blueprint. Lately moves into R&B, Hold My Hand is lovers rock focused on faith and trust, and All These Things is a dancehall slow jam. Lead single, So Fine, is an electric homage to the fairer sex, while Press It Up is ravey dancehall and Bruk Out is a typically energetic excuse to let loose on the dancefloor. Considering he’s worked with the biggest names in music (Beyoncé, Busta Rhymes, Rihanna, 50 Cent), and the current trend is for expanding appeal through collaborations, it’s a surprise that Imperial Blaze has no guests.
“People ask me who’s on Imperial Blaze. It’s me,” says Paul, clearly irked. “It’s my album so don’t get it confused. Just because I’m easy to approach, people think I need other people. I don’t need anybody else dawg, everybody I collaborated with came to me. Beyoncé came to me. Jay-Z came to me. Busta Rhymes, Blu Cantrell, Joss Stone and Carlos Santana all came to me. I didn’t approach them.”
“‘The collaboration king’ title annoys me. I can do a very good collaboration but the major part of my career is my songs. Just because people view me as a down-to-earth guy and humble dude, people think I need them. I don’t need them. That’s why with Imperial Blaze the emphasis is on showing you there’s more to me than ‘it’s the reggae guy with the dance’. ”
You get the sense that Sean Paul is rapidly approaching a crossroads. He’s caught between replicating a sound and style that’s hugely popular and successful, and wanting to grow beyond ‘the reggae guy with the dance’ persona. His thoughtful, worldly-wise side has appeared time and again over the last three days, and he shows himself to be insightful and inspirational, such as when the conversation unexpectedly turns to visiting Africa.
“The first time I went to Africa was in 2004,” he remembers. “I’ve been to Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Egypt twice, Tunisia, South Africa, Angola, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Cameroon... Nigeria’s a crazy place”. “Rwanda was a very special performance. I cried after that. Fifteen years ago, there was genocide and I sometimes see my country heading it that direction. So to perform in Rwanda with everyone together, although there are still problems, made me feel there is hope for my country. On the bus home I was bawling.
“Everybody’s roots on this earth – if you check it out scientifically – are from Africa. Jamaica is very closely linked to Africa through music and culture, and we always talk of home as ‘Mama Africa’. We sang about Nelson Mandela before anyone in the world else was doing it. Africa means something to us.”