“Sometimes I lay under the moon and thank God I’m breathing,” chants reggae sensation and Hasidic Jew Matisyahu on “One Day,” the anthemic new single from his upcoming album, Light, which will be released on August 25th.
It’s been more than three years since his breakthrough single, “King Without a Crown,” became a surprise hit in early 2006 and Billboard named him one of the year’s top reggae artists. “I became religious, then put out the record — I had this newfound faith, and that was the inspiration,” the New York native, who embraced Orthodox Judaism in 2001, explains. “This has been more about the next step in terms of believing in God. Where do death and bad things that happen in this world fit into the picture of God and the reflection of God in this world?”
So why the long break between records? “I didn’t want to be touring while I was making the record,” Matisyahu says backstage before a concert at Central Park’s Summerstage in New York as part of a short co-headlining tour with jam-prog rockers Umphrey’s McGee. “One of the things with Youth was that we had a lot of pressure to get it out there and strike while the iron was hot. I feel like, in a lot of ways, this is my first record.”
At times, Light is a dynamic step away from the standard one-drop reggae that he had come to rely on through his first two albums, Youth and 2004’s Shake Off the Dust… Arise. Opening track “Smash Lies” features a densely layered hip-hop beat that sounds like it could have come from Lil Wayne or Akon. The track even features a little bit of the hotly debated Auto-Tune technology. “But it’s not the Auto-Tune that all those rappers are using now,” he jokes. “It’s more of an effect on the vocal. It was the right place to use it.”
“Smash Lies” and other more complex beats, like the rocking reggaeton of “Motivate,” the glitchy minimalism of “Escape” and the pulsating, dancehall synth of “So Hi So Lo” were crafted in stages — electronica work by Ooah of the Glitch Mob, programmed dance-hall snippets with Jamaican teen prodigy Steven McGregor, live drums with reggae legends Sly and Robbie and ska-punk pioneers Fishbone, plus his own improvisational beatboxing. He also recruited singer-songwriter Trevor Hall for softer, lighter tracks like “I Will Be Light,” and found unlikely inspiration working with Good Charlotte on the lilting rocker “Darkness Into Light.”
Matisyahu and his backing band, which features guitarist Aaron Dugan, keyboardist Rob Marscher and the newly recruited Dub Trio, played a mix of new and old tracks at Central Park, donning a pair of custom Nikes and a Red Stripe trucker hat, which he eventually took off, revealing a yarmulke underneath. At times throughout the show, the wiry MC was a whirling dervish, twisting and turning, spinning circles around the stage in ecstasy and diving off the stage into the crowd. “Our songs can go 10 to 20 minutes long,” he brags, and the 90 minute set didn’t disappoint.
But, for Matisyahu, the key to his success with albums past and present comes in the quiet bridge of, “I Will Be Light.” “You’ve got one tiny moment in time for life to shine,” he whispers. “It’s appreciation of this life and the realization that you’re not here forever. Any moment you could wake up and something could happen, and I’m just taking the moment and really being in it.”