Polarities is the thirteenth and final full album of new material from Vaughn Benjamin and the culmination of a twenty-year working relationship between Benjamin and I Grade Records.
By Midnight Raver
Akae Beka‘s new posthumous album Polarities is yet another brilliant Vaughn Benjamin and Zion I Kings (ZIK) collaboration. ZIK is the production triumvirate of Laurent “Tippy I” Alfred of I Grade Records, David “JAH D” Goldfine of Zion High Productions, and Andrew “Moon” Bain of Lustre Kings. Also, the late Drew “Drew Keys” Stoch of Haze Street Dub is intimately involved in the production.
For those who are unaware, the ZIK signature sound is authentic with a profound spiritual intensity and modern production sound. This gives the music a deeply reverential and ceremonial feel. The music contains multi-layered percussive and horns-driven soundscapes. Tippy creates a well-balanced mix where keys and hand-drumming are given equal billing with the bass and drum. The sound is timeless. It defines this era of modern roots reggae music – an era dating back to the early 2000s. It’s a new sound with an old soul.
Vaughn Benjamin passed away from this life on November 4, 2019. According to Tippy I, Vaughn recorded the album tracks well before his passing while touring the world with Akae Beka.
“We recorded the songs on Polarities between 2016 and 2019. Many of the songs were recorded on the road when I was working as Akae Beka manager and FOH engineer. Some in Kingston, some in Chile, one in Vermont, some in France, and a few in Florida. We were steadily working on this album at the time of Vaughn’s passing. We were just starting to select the songs for the release.
It definitely took some time to come to adjust to new realities without Vaughn. I was not in a rush to release the album soon after. Feeling the urgency of the songs in the age of pandemic, I tried to have the album ready in the second half of 2020. I released the first two singles that year. But timing with the album artwork and other Akae Beka releases pushed the Polarities release into this present time. It’s Jah who rules the time. Things are finally in place to share the album, so giving thanks for that.”
Polarity is the condition of a body or system in which it has opposing physical properties at different points. It is a theme that runs throughout the album and one which was of great interest to Vaughn Benjamin at the time these tracks were recorded. The Yin and the Yang. The positive and the negative. Good and evil. Life and death. Polarities.
Polarities opens in righteous fashion with “Don’t Feel No Way.“ Vaughn Benjamin flows flawlessly over the Andrew “Bassie” Campbell-produced rhythm, chanting on archaeological anomalies and ancient treasures. His lyrics as abstract but poignant as ever, “[W]ho’s sitting at the root, alabaster piece of a trained monkey, carrying a basket for five pence, and maybe jewelry.”
Tippy leans heavily upon his echo effect to bring an atmospheric and emotional feel to an otherwise hard-driving riddim. He mixes the track to perfection, leaving the listener with a tune that embodies ZIK’s distinctive “digital ancient” sound.
“Don’t Feel No Way“ is ZIK at their very finest. Campbell provides the bassline as Tyrone “T-Rock” Davis rides the drumkit in perfect synchronicity. This lays the framework for one of the tightest rhythms I’ve heard in some time. I just want to run it to the mountaintop and play it loud for all the people. Balboa Becker and Garrett Kobsef provide the signature ZIK horns sound. This track is placed perfectly to welcome the listener to a true aural adventure. An instant classic.
“Charges” is rhythmic gold as longtime Midnite/Akae Beka rhythm guitarist Edmund Fieulleteau steps into the mix. Andrew “Moon” Bain’s lead guitar work is just stellar. The late Andrew “Drew Keys” Stoch features prominently in the mix, blessing the track with his Rhodes piano and synthesizer. With JAH D and Junior Richards on the riddim, and Tippy layering keys, this is one beautiful piece of music.
“Black Carbon” matches Benjamin with none other than Jamar “Chronixx” Mcnaughton. Chronixx is one of Jamaica’s most beloved modern roots reggae vocalists. The song is a relevant and timely look at the topic of race. Vaughn Benjamin sings about the reality that we are all carbon-based beings regardless of race or color. We all emanate from the same black source. It’s message is scientific, sociological, historical and spiritual all in one. Chronixx’s guest vocals shine and showcase the lyrical and vocal mastery that has made him beloved around the world.
“Sow and the Reap” is perhaps my favorite track on the album. The players include ZIK along with fusion guitarist Steven Katz. Drum programming is provided by longtime ZIK collaborator Romaine “Teflon Zincfence” Arnett. This was the last song Vaughn recorded for the album in the final year of his life. Benjamin sings over an intricate mix of acoustic guitars soaked in jazzy horns. Katz’s acoustic guitar performance is strikingly beautiful, elevating this already stellar tune. Simply magical and majestic.
“Everything Bless” was recorded in Kingston, Jamaica. The first single from the album, it features a guest vocal by global reggae icon and Ivorian singer/songwriter Tiken Jah Fakoly. Vaughn Benjamin takes the first verse and Fakoly takes the second, adding a world music feel to the track. A strikingly beautiful tune. Two legends blessing the same vibe.
On “Viral Trend,” recorded at Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong Studios in Jamaica, Elisha “Drummazeb” Ellis brings a hard-hitting drum sound that makes for a heavy-hitting track. Tippy brings Andrew “Bassie” Campbell’s kette to the forefront of the mix, giving the track a unique yet riveting sound. Andrew “Drew Keys” Stoch’s synthesizer adds an intangible element to the track that makes it one of the more remarkable in this set.
The title track “Polarities” is real head-knocka of a riddim and one which will surely pleasantly surprise Vaughn Benjamin fans. This uptempo, almost danceable roots reggae tune is undeniable. Andrew “Moon” Bain (rhythm guitar) and Padraic Coursey (lead guitar) shine bright here with ZIK laying down the riddim. It is this tune that inspired Marcus Wilson while hand-painting the beautiful album cover artwork. The players are in tune and on time. I implore ZIK to put together a “Polarities” riddim project. It is that good.
On Polarities, Vaughn Benjamin explores familiar realms of ancient history and civilizations, archaeology, anthropology, theoretical physics, organic chemistry, spirituality, religion, metaphysics, economics, and most importantly, Rastafari. There has never been another reggae artist who dared to venture into such wide-ranging thematic elements in their lyrics. He is without a doubt the most well-read and intellectual lyricist of my generation. Vaughn Benjamin, even after his passing, continues to astonish the reggae world with the breadth and depth of his knowledge, his mastery of the English language, and his vocal versatility.
It feels like the end of an era. Just like there will never be another Bob Marley, there certainly won’t be another Vaughn Benjamin. When I listen to Vaughn Benjamin’s music all other music really becomes inconsequential. From a lyrical perspective, it will take some time – months, maybe years – to fully digest what he has gifted us in this single album release alone. There are websites livicated to transcribing, analyzing, and interpreting his lyrics.
This is Vaughn Benjamin’s best album since 2016’s Portals. Maybe his best yet as Akae Beka. As I stated in my review of that album, this project is a testament to the supreme talents of both Vaughn Benjamin and Laurent “Tippy I” Alfred, whose works together achieves a greatness which exceeds the sum of their individual parts. However, there are so many multitalented musicians who contribute to Polarities, making it another landmark album for Vaughn Benjamin and ZIK. And while Vaughn’s physical voice has been silenced, his message will carry on forever. So as Vaughn Benjamin himself would say, “Don’t Feel No Way.”
I Grade Records will release Polarities on digital platforms and CD on May 21, 2021. Vinyl pressings are planned as well.