When Sting performed for the first time in Jamaica in January at Shaggy and Friends, the biennial fundraising concert supporting Kingston’s Bustamante Children’s Hospital, few people knew the connection between the artists transcended the former Police frontman supporting the dancehall superstar’s mighty philanthropic efforts.
Toward the end of Sting’s set, Shaggy joined him on stage to address the audience and reveal that they were, in fact, collaborators. “This is our new single and this is the very first time we are playing it anywhere in the world so put your hands in the air for this brand new song,” said Shaggy to an uproarious response. Sting and Shaggy were so pleased with that single, “Don’t Make Me Wait,” that it became the catalyst in their decision to make a collaborative album. The resultant 44/876 (A&M/Interscope), so named for the respective country codes of England and Jamaica, drops on April 20.
"We just had a rapport,” Sting told Billboard. “I decided a joint venture was much more exciting than him just guesting.”
“He’s brought me patience and intuitiveness,” Shaggy says of Sting. “He’s taught me to dissect a record down to the last T.... I used to do three or four songs a day, just write them, boom, boom, boom and done... [but] this is more exciting.”
About a year ago, several decades into Sting and Shaggy’s well-established careers, Martin Kierszenbaum, Sting’s manager and Shaggy’s former A&R, brought the unlikely pair together. With admittedly divergent methods in the recording studio, Sting and Shaggy nonetheless found common, fertile musical ground throughout 44/876. The intersection of Sting’s considered approach with Shaggy’s spur-of-the-moment strategy has been a broadening experience for both.
The 12 artfully constructed tracks on 44/876 (the majority produced by Sting International) effectively juxtapose Sting’s crooned verses with Shaggy’s patois raps. The duo alternate leads, harmonize and sing backup for each other while working through various Jamaican genres: dancehall reggae on the title track, joyous rocksteady on “To Love and Be Loved” and bass heavy one-drop reggae on “Night Shift” and “Don’t Make Me Wait.” Their unexpected union earned Sting and Shaggy a performance slot at the 2018 Grammys, a profile on ABC’s Nightline (and in other outlets that would otherwise be uninterested in reggae) and on April 21, a day after 44/876 drops, they will perform for Queen Elizabeth’s 92nd birthday concert at Royal Albert Hall.
Here's a track-by-track breakdown of the album.
The album leads off with the sleek, dancehall influenced title track. Sting, who has lived in New York for many years, needed a break because “the politics of this country is getting to me”; although he’s not specific with the dizzying barrage of tweets and tawdry headlines, maybe he doesn’t have to be. Shaggy invites him to Jamaica to “catch an island vibe.” Jamaican dancehall star Aidonia, who appeared at Shaggy and Friends 2018, drops an energetic welcoming verse with sibling reggae band, 2016 Grammy Award winners Morgan Heritage, providing additional background vocals.
2. “Morning Is Coming”
A slow paced, horn-drenched, majestic reggae groove that references the sweet sounds of the nightingale, written as a song of hope in turbulent times. “The nightingale is the only bird that sings at night, so I was thinking about, what is so important that he wakes you up at three in the morning?” asks Sting. “Of course he is saying, morning is coming; there’s an optimism about the sunrise and in this political time where there is so much fear and terrible oppression, we need a message of hope.” Shaggy’s patois terms put it more concisely: “Whether you know how fi bubble or yuh know how fi wine, enjoy life, it's a beautiful time.”
3. “Waiting For the Break of Day”
The sultry R&B/reggae backbeat belies this social critique and its confidence in a better tomorrow. It’s also Sting’s third general reference to politics. “You see some politicians, you hear the things they say, you hear the falseness in their positions, we’re waiting for the break of day,” his message punctuated by the gospel influenced backing vocals of Melissa Musique and Gene Noble.
4. “Gotta Get Back My Baby”
Eighteen years after he urged Rik Rok to deny any wrongdoing on “It Wasn’t Me,” a more mature Shaggy, likewise Sting, take full responsibility for their infidelities. Both artists are in superb form on this retro soul flavored nugget about a love gone wrong, shifting leads and harmonizing on, perhaps, the album’s finest example of the effortless meshing of their vocals.
5. “Don’t Make Me Wait”
Utilizing a one taut drop rhythm that falls somewhere between Bob Marley’s implied exasperation on the languid “Waiting in Vain” and Canadian pop/reggae band Magic’s vented frustration on their up-tempo 2016 hit “Lay You Down Easy," the song’s irresistibly melodic chorus bridges Shaggy’s nimble raps with Sting’s exquisite serenading, which reaches a crescendo midway through the second verse, its beauty compensating for the somewhat tedious lyrics.
6. “Just One Lifetime”
Borrowing from the Lewis Carroll poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter” from his book Through The Looking Glass, “Just One Lifetime” is a swaying, roots rocking reminder that we only have one life to make a difference so let's come together. Referencing Carroll’s poem was Sting’s idea but its enchanting quirkiness within a reggae song is an appropriate fit for Shaggy, too.
7. “22nd Street”
The story of returning to the street where Sting and Shaggy met the “girl of my dreams” lacks the vocal and sonic tension of the other tracks and feels dull by comparison.
8. “Dreaming in the U.S.A.”
A love letter to the United States of America written by two very successful immigrants, “because what we value is under threat,” Sting told ABC’s Nightline. “Dreaming in the U.S.A.” connects chiming reggae rhythm guitar riffs reminiscent of “Roxanne” and the bold, concerned patriotism of Springsteen’s “Born In The USA,” with the current debate over immigration as its central theme. Shaggy, who served a tour of duty in the first Gulf War, contributes a compelling concluding verse: “Big up all the immigrants living and working right here inside of America/get up every morning working two jobs to make it here in America/I’m a military man who carried arms and fight in defense of America/I await the day when we will all inhabit a better America.”
9. “Crooked Tree”
A nod to the classic magistrate songs of mid-60s Jamaica including Derrick Morgan’s “Tougher Than Tough” and Prince Buster’s “Judge Dread,” the latter refashioned by dub poet Mutabaruka in 1996 as “The People’s Court." Those Jamaican classics were driven by infectious rocksteady rhythms, with the defendants, ranging from rude boys to corrupt politicians, tried for clearly identified offenses. Here, the staid tempo doesn’t propel courtroom drama and we’re uncertain who Sting is supposed to be when defending the various charges against him, including arson, murder, theft and drug dealing, as laid out by presiding Judge Burrell (Shaggy). Court dismissed.
10. “To Love and Be Loved”
Gleefully trading lyrics, Sting and Shaggy celebrate love on this burnished rocksteady gem. Its rhythm track, especially the organ flourishes, evoke Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle, Jamaica’s top label for rocksteady releases, while Shaggy’s effervescent toasting suggests U-Roy, the legendary Jamaican deejay who came to prominence rapping over original rocksteady hits. “To Love and Be Loved” is also a testament to the power of music. After approaching a woman he likes with an invitation to dance, Sting croons, “I walk towards her with my two left feet,” to which Shaggy responds, “you got the courage from this sweet reggae beat."
11. “Sad Trombone”
Sting’s gently nuanced vocals convey this descriptive narrative, embellished with music metaphors, as he laments a love that got away. “Something in my choice of notes, something in my tone/sliding to the deepest bass from a lonely baritone, I guess I’ll always be the sad trombone,” sings Sting, his mood underscored by a haunting reggae beat and the somber playing of trombonist Clark Gayton.
12. “Night Shift”
A durable bass line played by Sting, chiming guitars from Sting’s long standing associate Dominic Miller and fluttering keyboards propel the spirited tempo on this memorable working overtime tale, which is highlighted by Sting and Shaggy’s complementary expressions. Sting sweetly informs his lady he won’t be coming home tonight, he’s working late, but Shaggy breaks it down with his inimitable Jamaica via Brooklyn phrasing: “Don't badda send no text, don't try fi call me pon di phone, working late inna di office mi nuh deh out a street a roam.”
(c) Billboard by Patricia Meschino