Sean Paul's back, and he's about to bring the heat this summer. The Jamaican dancehall superstar first sparked the world in 2002 with his breakout hit, "Gimme The Light," and the fire has been burning brightly ever since. Hot on the heels of his multi-platinum, Grammy-winning classic album, Dutty Rock, he dropped the 2005 RIAA platinum smash The Trinity. That album led off with the Top 10 single "We Be Burnin'," followed by the #1 smash "Temperature." Now Sean Paul is stoking the flames once more with his highly anticipated fourth album, Imperial Blaze.
The Kingston-born rhyme slinger has already sold more than 10 million albums worldwide, and has become the most successful Jamaican artist of all time on the U.S. charts - spurred by a trio of #1 pop singles, and five top ten hits. But despite his scorching track record, Sean Paul is taking nothing for granted. "Imperial Blaze is like the king's fire," says the keeper of dancehall's flame. "It's all about going hard and keeping it hot." Case in point: the album's infectious lead single, "So Fine," which blends irresistible harmonies and rapid-fire lyrics with a futuristic backdrop of digital percussion.
A lot of artists talk about "staying on the grind," but few work harder than Sean Paul. He has done more than any other dancehall artist to bring the hardcore sound of Kingston to new audiences around the world. Since his prophetically titled 2000 debut, Stage One, Sean Paul has proven time and again that modern Jamaican reggae can be a viable genre in the international music market. But the explosive energy of Imperial Blaze indicates that he's only getting started.
"In this business, they say you're only as good as your last hit," says the man who beat out Kanye West and Nick Lachey to win the American Music Award for Favorite Pop/Rock Male Artist in 2006. "They say you've got to prove yourself all over again every time you come back, so here we come."
More than just proving Sean's staying power, Imperial Blaze represents his evolution from a Jamaican crossover star into a bona fide pop hitmaker with a rare gift for bringing cutting-edge sounds to an international following. "My first album was mainly a compilation of songs that were out in the dancehall," he explains. "On the second album we added a few special ones, and with The Trinity we did even more exclusive songs. But now with Imperial Blaze, most of them were recorded specially for this album. It's all about my growth as an artist."
One thing that hasn't changed is Sean's determination to showcase the talents of Jamaica's hottest young producers. "We have worked with other producers in the past," he says. "I have no problem working with any big hip-hop or dance music producer who wants me to spit on their track. But I'm not trying to ride on anybody else's genre. When it comes to my album, you're gonna hear the new kids from Jamaica."
The production credits on Imperial Blaze read like a who's who of dancehall trackmasters, from Don Corleone to Craig "Leftside" Parkes (son of legendary Jamaican bandleader Lloyd Parkes), to Jeremy Harding (who doubles as Sean's manager), to Arif Cooper (son of Ibo Cooper from the famed reggae band Third World) to Delano of Renaissance Disco and even Sean's own brother, Jazon "Jigzagula" Henriques of Coppershot Sound. And for the first time, Sean himself produced a track on the album entitled "I Know You Like It." But nearly half the album's 19 tracks were produced by the 19-year old Stephen "Di Genius" McGregor, whose Big Ship/Di Genius Records label has dominated the dancehall scene for the past year.
"I first met Stephen when he was like eight years old and I was in my 20s," Sean reveals. "His father Freddie McGregor is a king of reggae music, so Stephen was born into this. Now he's running the place, and the chemistry we have is something special. When you find someone who gets you as an artist, you can really push yourself and take it to a different place."
The songwriting on Imperial Blaze represents a giant leap forward in Sean Paul's artistry. "There's plenty of party tracks, but we're not just singing about the same old thing," he explains. High-energy cuts like "Lace It" on McGregor's Daybreak riddim are already sparking the worldwide dancehall circuit, but other cuts find Sean in a more reflective mode. "My music has reached the point where it's expanding," he says. "I'm talking about relationships and different things we all go through in life." Not only has the subject matter evolved, but vocally Sean's experimenting with different melodies and harmonies to create a richer new sound.
Sean wrote a tribute to his mother, entitled "Straight From My Heart," for her birthday, and the depth of his emotions can be heard in every line. "That felt so good it should have been the first song I ever recorded," says Sean. "Music is supposed to be for celebration, and who better to celebrate than the woman who gave me life?" The haunting hook from "Hold My Hand" represents another artistic breakthrough, what may be his first-ever dancehall ballad.
While Sean has a long history of recording hit duets - including the recent remix of Estelle's "Come on Over," preceded by "Give It Up To Me" with Keyshia Cole, "Break It Off" with Rihanna, "Baby Boy" with Beyoncé, and "Give It to You Girl" with Eve - the new album does not rely on guest appearances. "I always think it's funny when people ask, 'Who's on your new album?'" says Sean with a grin. "It's my album, you know?"
Although he has collaborated with hip-hop stars like 50 Cent, The Clipse, and Busta Rhymes in the past, Sean Paul's main emphasis is on his own sound. "Dancehall is the most underground music in the world and our artists are most misrepresented. But we're gonna do it star. We're gonna show people. And even though we've done it time and time again, some people still act like they don't want to give reggae music a try. But this music is big in all corners now. So all I'm saying is show some respect."
After tasting fame and fortune, Sean Paul is more concerned than ever with his musical legacy. "When I look back on some great artists over the years," he reflects, "you look at some man like Bob Marley and even Shabba Ranks and Super Cat. When you check back over their career, you see all that they accomplished and say, 'Yo - what a work them do!' Them thing deh really make you wanna enjoy this time while you have it - just make the most of it while the sun is shining. Do as much as we can."
"As I have said before, there are many types of dancehall," Sean Paul emphasizes. "We have music that can express everything that a human being can feel, more time in a raw way and sometimes in a very soft and seductive way. That's why I love this art form. And I'm ready to do it again, star. We're coming with something original. It have to sound fresh and new. Don't sound like you're copying over and over. Sound like the next thing. Watch we!"