Trends change, artists’ careers ebb and flow but few have navigated the uncertainties of the music industry as skillfully and as successfully as Shaggy. The Jamaica-born, Brooklyn-raised deejay born Orville Burrell has played a pivotal role in taking dancehall reggae into the mainstream. He won the 1996 best reggae album Grammy for Boombastic and topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 2001 with “Angel” and “It Wasn’t Me” from Hot Shot, which crowned the Billboard 200 and sold over 10 million copies worldwide within a year of its release. But before that, he was dismissed as a one-hit wonder, criticized as too pop leaning to be authentically dancehall and dropped by the labels for whom he made millions of dollars.
Through it all, Shaggy has remained focused and figured out how to advantageously position his talents within the popular music landscape. “I have always been that guy that reinvents himself. There are going to be waves within an artist’s career and you have to be strong enough to know that even when you aren’t riding that wave, your talent doesn’t stop,” Shaggy told Billboard. “So, if the trend of music is going one way, I just try to fit into that trend but Shaggy-tize it. It’s a formula that works so if it ain’t broke, why fix it?”
To Shaggy-tize means crafting an impeccable, resounding Jamaican patois flow that’s alternately sly, humorous, somewhat boastful, consistently clever and is easily adaptable to dancehall, electronic, pop, rock, soul and reggae rhythms. That formula proved successful as early as 1993 with Shaggy’s breakthrough hit, the brilliantly quirky “Oh Carolina,” which reached No. 59 on the Hot 100; two decades on, it’s still a highly effective recipe, because 2018 ranked among the most remarkable times of Shaggy’s 30-plus year career, with 2019 continuing along an equally stellar route. In January 2018, Shaggy brought pop icon Sting to Kingston, Jamaica, as the headlining act for his biennial fundraising concert Shaggy and Friends (which in 2018 raised one million U.S. dollars for the ICU at Kingston’s Bustamante Children’s Hospital); there, the duo delivered the debut performance of “Don’t Make Me Wait,” the first single from their collaborative album, 44/876 (A&M/Interscope/Cherrytree Music Company). An unlikely pairing that many said would never work, Sting and Shaggy’s 44/876 was 2018’s best-selling reggae album; the first leg of their summer 2018 European tour ranked as the fourth highest grossing of the period, according to Billboard’s Hot Tours tally. In February 2019, Shaggy hosted the Grammy Awards’ Premiere Ceremony prior to the main telecast, with 44/876 awarded the best reggae album Grammy. The duo is currently featured in a European commercial for Fiat 500, part of the Italian auto brand’s 120th anniversary campaign, singing “Just One Lifetime,” the current single from 44/876; their UK tour begins on May 19.
Shaggy will release Wah Gwaan?! (Brooklyn Knights Entertainment/300 Entertainment/Cherrytree Music Company) on May 10 (“wah gwaan” is a ubiquitous Jamaican patois greeting meaning what’s going on). Over 12 tracks, he smoothly maneuvers through an array of musical styles, expanding the definition of Shaggy-tize, alongside such featured artists as R&B hitmaker Jason Derulo, reggaetón singer Nicki Jam, upcoming Jamaican female dancehall star Shenseea, popular Brooklyn based selector turned deejay Noah Powa and Grammy nominated singer/songwriter Stacy Barthe. The first single, “Use Me,” released in late November, suggests the braggadocio of his certified platinum single “Boombastic,” but utilizes a slightly more laid-back approach.
Wah Gwaan?!‘s second single, “You,” is an irresistibly upbeat EDM/dancehall fusion, which Shaggy says was written about “the tunnel vision that can develop for just one person, without distraction.” Shaggy had the song for a year but hadn’t found the ideal singer to feature on it until his (and Sting’s) manager Martin Kierszenbaum (Founder/Chairman Cherrytree Music Company) suggested Alexander Stewart. A 19-year-old Toronto based singer/songwriter, Stewart “had the tone and color in his voice that matched the music, so I asked if he would do it and he nailed it,” enthused Shaggy, adding, “‘You’ is the best single to kick off Wah Gwaan?! It has a great melody, it’s summer, it’s danceable, and it puts you in a great mood.”
Stewart, who has amassed over 1 million followers by uploading his cover versions of popular songs on his self-titled YouTube channel, says working with Shaggy was an absolute pleasure. “I grew up listening to ‘Angel’ and ‘Boombastic, classic songs that seamlessly blended pop and reggae with Shaggy’s booming voice. I’m so honored to have been invited by him to feature on ‘You.’ He’s musical, kind and fun.” Produced by longstanding Shaggy collaborator Dwane Shippy, “You” drops on March 29 but debuts here.
What Gwaan?!, Shaggy’s first solo album since 2013’s Out of Many One Music, arrives at a time of tremendous shifts within his inner circle, and so he chose to get personal on several tracks. He wrote “Wrong Room” about his challenging relationship with his mother; the chorus of “Live” counsels “you are so busy making a living you forgot to live”; and on “Praises” the 50-year-old artist expresses gratitude for an extraordinary career that has taken him from the gritty dancehalls of Flatbush, Brooklyn, to the world’s most prestigious stages, from financial struggles to immense wealth.
“I made this album over a few times because I wanted it to reflect where I am right now. My career is so big, that’s why I do charity, because I recognize, as a human being, I couldn’t have written songs like ‘Angel’ or ‘It Wasn’t Me,’ a higher power did that, put them in my path, allowing me to do Hot Shot and effect changes in people’s lives,” he offers, an explanation that also provides the quintessential meaning of Shaggy-tize. “There are people that bought homes and sent their kids to school because of Hot Shot’s success, that’s what it was there for, not for me to drive around in nice cars and bang chicks. As I’ve gotten older, I see things clearer and realize what my purpose is and continues to be, so I wrote Wha Gwaan?! from that perspective.”