Friday, 9 October 2009

Jay Sean - a transatlantic success story nobody's talking about

While everyone (well, not quite everyone) over here has been considering burning questions like; "Is Lady GaGa is packing heavy ordnance?", "Has the arse finally dropped out of the Lene Lovich knock-off industry?" or "Is it time to stop making gags about the newly-reconfigured Sugabugas being the Trigger's Broom of pop?", a UK-born singer with a fistful of hit singles and two hit albums to his name has quietly climbed to the top of the US singles chart, breaking the Black Eyed Peas six-month stranglehold on the number one spot. Not that anyone's making much of a fuss, like.

Jay Sean's Down is a cracking little slice of state-of-the-art pop/r&b with an irresistible hook and a cameo from Yung Money Weezy in full-on Lollipop autotune gurgle mode. It'll be number one over here in no time. Some kid will perform it on the next season of American Idol, and millions of other kids will go screaming nuts. That's how pop music works nowadays, for better or worse. But, yet again, its success once more raises the question: how the fuck is it that a UK artist with actual, bonafide hits can, after getting tucked up by his/her UK label, go to the US, put their career in the hands of the Americans and subsequently clean up? It makes absolutely no sense. It's not as if it's anything especially exotic we're talking about here.

Jay Sean first popped up on my radar in 2003, when he was the featured vocalist on Rishi Rich's excellent Dance With You. For a little while afterwards, it seemed as if Rishi's wired-for-desi take on r&b production signalled the first wave of an emerging voice in British black music, fusing dancehall, r&b, Bengali/Punjabi pop and hip-hop in a way that seemed purpose-built to cross over to mainstream audiences who'd grown up with these sounds all around them. Even Timbaland appeared to be taking notes. Most likely to surf that wave seemed to be acts like Kray Twinz, certified dimepieces like Veronica Mehta, or your boy Jay Sean. Jay went on to have a succession of hit singles with the kind of smooth, likeable, if not particularly startling, pop-tinged r&b that's never struggled to find an audience in the UK. Massive crossover stardom seemed to evade him somehow, and after Virgin Records continued to put his second album on the back burner (after his first had gone Top 20 over here and sold two million in India alone), he did a bunk. The subsequent self-released sophomore joint was a bigger hit than his major label debut, and gave him five consecutive Top 20 hit singles. So why is it that, at a time when it's almost literally staring into the abyss, the UK music industry can't make a superstar out of a homegrown artist who quite clearly can sell records? Or at least as many records as Florence And The Machine?

I used to wander around Rusholme, Manchester during the 80s and see posters for concerts by acts like Alaap and Heera; massive stars in the Asian community over here, yet completely unknown elsewhere in the UK. Perhaps the crossover potential was always going to be limited for acts whose sound was so heavily dependent on South Asian instruments or tunings that sounded odd to Western ears. Nevertheless, at this time it wasn't unusual for bhangra acts to sell upwards of 30,000 cassettes a week - you'd think it might have occurred to someone somewhere in the industry that this could be something worth paying attention to. Nope. Even when an act did cross over, like Apachi Indian, it was widely perceived as a novelty, and it seemed nobody over here ever thought it worth the effort to engage with the Asian community and its music the way Chris Blackwell did with reggae.

Anyway, with the emergence of people like Bally Sagoo, a sort of post-bhangra sound began to emerge and, as the next generation of Anglo-Asian or British-born Asian kids came through, you began to hear music that wasn't really Westernised as such, but in fact reflected the community it came from in much the same way as jungle did, or - perhaps more relevant to the topic - acts like Soul II Soul did in their early days. But, although you can hear the end result of this blasting out of a tricked-out Beemer somewhere in just about any major city in the UK, it's still massively under-represented in the pop charts. Clearly, the scores of desi kids who eat this stuff up are buying it from the little shopfronts and market stalls in their manors - one of the few places where something resembling old-fashioned record shops still flourish, perhaps - but while UK labels look at that market and either don't know how to get into it, or just can't be bothered, Cash Money seems to have seen the growth of urban-desi culture in the States, looked at Jay Sean's impressive numbers, put two-and-two together and thought, let's get it.

Still, let's be honest, though - good as it is, there's little to differentiate Down from any number of releases by the likes of Ne-Yo, Trey Songz, Chris Brown, J. Holiday, Lloyd and them. The strings don't sound as if they've come from an R.D Burman soundtrack or anything like that, and there's barely anything idiomatically desi about the song or its production. But all the same, here we have a UK act abandoned by majors, as ever too preoccupied with the latest half-witted micro-trend from the Shamden/Poxton/Boreditch axis of Barleyism (do any of them actually want to sell records, do you think?), who has effectively managed to sell coals to Newcastle. Given the desi propensity for supporting their own, he might even manage to avoid the one-hit wonder tag that Mark Morrison and Craig David ended up with when they tried to pull off the same trick. At least the next time a so-called urban act is dropped by a major, they can look not just to Est'elle, but to Jay Sean too, and know that all hope is not yet lost.

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