While he recently garnered his second Grammy Award for 44/876 (his joint album with Sting), Shaggy is ready to return to the music scene solo with his 12th album, Wah Gwaan?!. The aforementioned LP is the reggae superstar’s first unaccompanied project in six years, and–as he details to VIBE–it’s one of the most personal albums of his nearly 30-year career.
“I got to a space where I almost started to be a little insecure, because your age is up there, and people around you are like ‘oh, you’re not as cool anymore,’” the 50-year-old says of his upcoming project, which is slated to drop May 10. “You get to a point where a lot of it isn’t really working, and you’re saying ‘maybe I should really just get back to me.’ My label rep said something to me: ‘Why don’t you try betting on yourself for a bit?’ As simple as it might sound. I sat down, and I decided to write.”
The Jamaican-born and bred musician’s hit “Oh Carolina” made waves in 1993, and he’s kept the good vibrations going ever since. Shaggy has sold 40 million units to date and has won two Grammy Awards out of six nominations. His fifth studio-album Hot Shot catapulted to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart in 2000. Two songs from the latter, “It Wasn’t Me” and “Angel,” hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 chart. He’s also one of the top three streamed reggae artists on Spotify, with 710 million streams. Shaggy wanted his latest body of work to be a culmination of his professional and personal experiences.
“There was a lot that happened in my life, especially within the last year,” he explains. “A lot of relationships severed, a lot of sh*t that made me like, ‘What do I do from here? Do I sit down and talk about ‘bangin’ on the bathroom floor’ again?’ A lot has changed since then, so that’s what I wanted to do. I’m really, really happy with the outcome of [the album], I really, really like it.”
“I spread knowledge as much as I can. I surround myself with people that are smarter than me, because I wanna be a sponge. I say, ‘if you’re the smartest guy in the room, then you’re in the wrong room.’”
Shaggy details that Wah Gwaan?! is “12 songs of eargasmic pleasure,” all of which invoke a different vibe for the listener. Those who are looking for feel-good riddims needn’t look further than the radio-friendly “You” featuring pop newcomer Alexander Stewart and the energetic “Money Up” with an assist from Noah Powa. The album also finds Shaggy at his most vulnerable with songs such as the honest and relatable “Live,” as well as “Praise,” the sonic equivalent of a happy-go-lucky day at the beach.
The LP features artists Nicky Jam, singer-songwriter Stacy Barthe and dancehall artist Shenseea. Shaggy notes that he focuses on collaborating with lesser-known artists in order to help cultivate their own budding careers.
“If you look at the patterns of what we’ve done over the years, like with ‘It Wasn’t Me,’ that was with Rikrok. He was a writer that became an artist because he put in work on that song,” he says. “‘Angel’ was Rayvon, and even recently with ‘I Need Your Love,’ we had Mohombi and Faydee, [who] are not really big stars. I think that making good records boils down to chemistry… If you’re just going for that hot guy, it might not connect. So it’s a little riskier [with lesser-known artists], but in my experience, when you do catch one like that, they’re massive. I go for the integrity of the song more so than the celebrity factor of it.”
“I’d rather pull the damn record than go through all of that sh*t. [Cardi] had something about her that was dope, and she sounded great on the track,” he recalls, noting that the “uncomfortable” moment is now water under the bridge. “I saw her a couple of times [afterwards], I just saw her at the Grammys again, so it was cool. She’s amazing.”
While the ride to music superstardom has not been easy, “Mr. Boombastic” has persevered with his talent, vivacious personality, sense of humor and sticktuitive nature marvellously intact. He also maintains an admirable poise and discipline, which he credits to his four years as a Marine. In fact, he went AWOL weekly during the early years of his career, driving from Swoop Circle on North Carolina’s Parris Island to New York to make music. He notes that he recorded “Big Up” while wearing his military uniform during the ‘90s.
Shaggy’s personal history has ultimately shaped his growth, longevity and how he approaches the music industry. What lights a fire under the artist is the notion carried by some that he “can’t” be successful in an ever-changing industry that tends to find difficulties working with the unknown. The odds were against him, but he continued to use their doubts as a motivating factor.
“My friend [producer and writer] Dave ‘Rude Boy’ Kelly said ‘why is it that you gotta go to rock bottom before you f**kin’ start rising?’ And I said, ‘rock bottom is when I see the true people around me,’” he says in reference to his early days as a musician, when reggae wasn’t as widely accepted as it is today. “I’m in a genre that is not popular. I am in a genre that is not taken seriously, and I’m trying to break through a barrier to become that.”
“I found myself in rooms with people that—because I have a strong Jamaican accent—they’d be on their devices,” he continues. “Especially my manager Robert, who had a very thick accent. But [at the time], they’d be in the room and they’d just be talking to each other [through pagers]. I knew this afterwards, because a lot of them got fired. They’d say things like ‘yeah, you can put him back on the Banana Boat.’ These were things that were being said constantly.”
Despite the beliefs of music’s gatekeepers, Shaggy not only became a lauded musical act, but he continued to grow and learn from others. This theme is explored in Wah Gwaan’s “Wrong Room,” a standout from the LP, and one of his most raw songs. The retrospective track features the musician discussing lessons learned both in his youth and throughout adulthood. An accompanying choir paired with bass-heavy production helps the track soar to higher, more triumphant heights.
“Some people have sight, but I got vision,” he sings. “At times I move like a politician. I try my best to form coalitions…”
“One thing about life, there’s never a moment that you’re not learning,” he smiles. “You keep learning and you keep finding things. If I knew what I knew then, I’d be a different person now, definitely. I spread knowledge as much as I can. I surround myself with people that are smarter than me, because I wanna be a sponge. I say, ‘if you’re the smartest guy in the room, then you’re in the wrong room.’”
He details that the song also pertains to the relationship he has with his mother. Although she is alive, he does not speak to her, and has “no desire to.” Despite their issues, however, Shaggy thanks her for providing him with the intellect to make it this far in life and in his career.
“I was never born with a golden spoon, and I never really liked going to school,” he says in “Wrong Room,” “but you should know mama never raised no fool.”
“Everybody’s born different, everybody’s mind is different, everybody deals with things different, and some people, it might not work well with them,” he says of his issues with his mother. While he isn’t explicit with his details, the only child hints that he was subjected to physical and emotional abuse growing up. However, he also attests her behavior to her stern Jamaican ways. “Some people are strong enough to go through that, and be like ‘Hey, I’ve overcome it.’ I don’t have a great relationship with my father, either. I take care of both of them, but I just don’t see where they fit into my life…”
“…I might not be educated because my parents never had money to send me to college to get a higher education, but mama didn’t raise no fool,” he continues. “I never take that for granted, I have gratitude, I’m full of gratitude, I live life with gratitude. It is my duty to go back to all the people that [are] my family…to make sure they’re okay. In the same, what I had to learn, also, was how to put me first. [“Wrong Room”] is very personal to me in that sense.”
Shaggy’s longevity is no surprise, especially considering the influx of reggae and dancehall-tinged pop ditties that have dropped in recent years. Mainstream acts such as Justin Bieber, Drake and Ed Sheeran have implemented island-flavored sounds in their tunes to great success, and Caribbean music continues to pull in new admirers and audiences. However, he wishes that the initial cheerful intentions of dancehall were still as prevalent as they once were.
“When I look at most of the songs that are out now from some of the younger crop, when I’m in the dancehall or the club, nobody dances,” Shaggy says of what’s missing from the genre in 2019. “There was another level of dancehall in my early, early days, like when Super Cat did ‘Ghetto Red Hot.’ They were very much still dancehall. The flow was a little different, but people danced to it. Then, when Elephant Man and [those] guys came in, they sang songs about dancing. It’s a fun time. When you see them in Jamaica and those songs come on, and people are doing these dances, to me, it’s colorful. That’s what dancehall is.”
Shaggy says that for a period of time, dancehall carried darker themes and featured lyrics about violence, losing the “festive” essence of what many loved about the genre. However, he praises current reggae artists such as Chronixx, Kabaka Pyramid and Koffee, for their “smooth” tunes reminiscent of artists who came before them. Other than the music that he’s planning on hitting listeners with on Wah Gwaan?!, he says that reggae music today is in good hands.
“I think what makes a good reggae record is soul, you have to have that soulful feel in it, because reggae is something that when you play it, you almost gotta feel it instead of just hearing it,” the legend explains with a smile. “If you don’t know how to make it, you just feel it.”