Protoje is in his head. One of modern reggae’s most important figure is in a contemplative, almost melancholy mood on his latest album, Third Time’s the Charm. Gone are the aspirational anthems and the superstar crossover collabs from previous records. This time, Protoje is leaning back, getting lost in his thoughts, and sinking into the riddims.
The 10-track set’s first single, “Hills,” finds Protoje recounting an idyllic period of isolation during the pandemic lockdowns. “Man, I been up in the hills, you know, like hide away, no sign a me, steam herb three time a day,” he sings in a swaggering trap cadence. “The Charm” samples legendary Jamaican singer Dennis Brown in its intro and blurs an easy skanking reggae rhythm into cavernous dub effects. A futuristic reggae feel permeates “Ten Cane Row,” which Protoje said was inspired by his meeting British soul singer Jorja Smith, whose smoky, sultry vocals on the song’s chorus contrast with his descriptive, crisply chatted verses.
Over a bubbling reggae beat, Protoje further displays his romantic side on “Dreamy Eyes,” which is highlighted by his shifting vocal patterns, especially his impressive, accelerated pace on the third verse. Protoje’s reflective words espousing spiritual strength are delivered with precise intonation on “Heavy Load,” which is set to a lush, retro-soul orchestral arrangement that ideally frames Jamaican singer Samory I’s powerfully anguished, irresistible hook.
Like its predecessors, Third Time’s the Charm incorporates elements of classic and neo-soul, rock, and especially hip-hop, but this time around, Protoje strongly emphasizes his Jamaican/reggae roots. That said, this isn’t your parents’ reggae. Protoje, working with a stellar cast of producers including IV the Polymath and 8Track, and Jamaica’s Iotosh and Ziah .Push, distills various influences into an avant-garde sonic montage that propels his exceptional vocal flow and lyrical complexities to greater heights.
Throughout his career, Protoje has recorded many incisive social commentaries, and “Late at Night” adheres to that precedent by addressing violence in Jamaica; the urgency of Protoje’s lyrics is intensified by his hypnotic staccato delivery: “Streets hot/Three Glocks/Beat shot/Kick back/Knee knock/Fall flat/Tree chop/Crime scene/See cops/Seize stock.” Sung over a blistering, bass heavy reggae rhythm and co-produced by Protoje and Oliver “Cadenza” Rodigan (son of venerable U.K. reggae radio personality Sir David Rodigan), “Late at Night” samples Jamaican singer Pam Hall’s “Children of the Night” (a reggae cover of the Stylistics’ 1972 soul nugget) with the dynamic Lila Iké providing the hauntingly sung chorus.
Protoje’s overall musical approach and the distinctiveness of this, his sixth studio album, is epitomized by the track “Incient Stepping,” produced by the innovative musical collective Zion I Kings, which Protoje (and many others) cite as the standard in modern reggae; over an ethereal soundscape that’s anchored in a resounding bassline, Protoje expresses his allegiance to Rastafari, juxtaposing reverential chanting with rapped verses and age-old mysticism with progressive vision. For all of Third Time’s the Charm’s genre-spanning inspirations and sampled, synthesized beats, it is unmistakably a reggae album that honors Jamaica’s great musical traditions yet incorporates bold experimentation to move those traditions forward; it’s also the finest representation of Protoje’s artistry to date. No wonder Protoje is so lost in thought. The man clearly has a lot on his mind.