To look at the cover image of Matisyahu‘s new album Youth is to see a man dressed strikingly in the traditional garb of a Hasidic Jew, complete with beard. But Matisyahu, born Matthew Miller – lyricist, beatboxer and MC – is at just 24 years of age the US’s biggest selling reggae artist, having shifted over half a million copies of this debut. At 6’5″, Matisyahu may even be the tallest reggae star too.
The secret of his appeal lies in contradiction. Influenced palpably by Bob Marley and Sly & Robbie‘s musical aesthetics, Matisyahu’s Youth is here guided by the experience of Bill Laswell, legendary dub producer and Jah Wobble collaborator. This partnership has produced a musical atmosphere more usually associated with Rastafarian lyrics, but here we instead have Zionist sentiments rapped and sung in a Caribbean accent. Matisyahu’s pronunciation of “high” is “hoi” – a proudly and uncompromisingly Jewish cadence. On first listen, it’s startling.
If this all sounds a bit preachy, secularists can take refuge in the lolloping rhythm of Fire of Heaven/Altar of Earth, King Without A Crown and the chilled out electronica that is Jerusalem – a dub track with a pop sheen that would atmospherically fit snugly into Mattafix‘s recent debut.
Every track of Youth has a pulsing rhythm. Even the instrumental interlude Shalow/Saalam and the woozily laid back Late Night In Zion shamble along optimistically. Ancient Lullaby’s arrangement has a distinctly southern African feel to it brought about twinkly acoustic guitar laid over the reggae beat which itself transforms into something from the sub-Sahara.
Matisyahu’s MC skills are best demonstrated on lead single King Without A Crown and the record’s title track. For the most part – possibly down to Laswell’s involvement – he manages not to sound like UB40 but rather as someone absorbing and interpreting the influences and accents of his neighbourhood to genuine effect.
Youth, for all its religious lyrical themes, is an album of global fusion and inspiration. Its audience in the UK is unlikely to match that over the pond, and his hardline theological stance – Hasidic Jews consider it improper for women to sing, for instance – is unlikely to endear him to secular, liberal European populations, but Youth represents well a character whose like has not been seen before, and whose music is a curiously spirited mix of theology and technology. While organised religion may be anathema to many people who hear this, it undeniably has conviction, rather than marketing enterprise, running right through it. Expect Matisyahu to be around for seconds.