The world is currently in the midst of a dancehall revolution. Rihanna recently announced that her next album will be heavily dancehall influenced; Jamaican artists like Popcaan and Spice are bringing a renewed, edgy-yet-radio-friendly version of dancehall to a global stage; and meanwhile, MCs like Miss Red are pushing the genre to new experimental heights. It’s no surprise that Santigold decided to surprise-drop a dancehall mixtape in 2018: the moment is ripe for an artist who has always shown a true affinity for the genre to take the dive into the clear turquoise waters of Afro-Caribbean pop.
From her breakout single – the still-banging “Creator” – onwards, Santigold has consistently flirted with the sunny, upbeat melodies and syncopated riddims of dancehall. I Don’t Want: The Goldfire Sessions makes good on that influence by meshing her signature summery pop hooks with authentic dancehall production, courtesy of Mixpak Records founder Dre Skull. Skull is the man responsible for some of Popcaan and Vybz Kartel’s most recent hits, and his effortless, catchy, and almost soothing production style gives I Don’t Want not only the mainstream seal of approval, but a quality of consistency that Santigold’s previous album, the enjoyable but uneven 99¢, was lacking. Sprinkled with genuine brilliance at times (in fact, its mind-blowing single “Banshee” is still one of the best songs of her career), 99¢ seemed on a whole overblown, weighed down by its own ambition. By comparison, I Don’t Want is laid back, minimal, and light as air, letting Santigold’s unencumbered essence shine that much brighter.
While Skull’s production work is admittedly a crucial part of why I Don’t Want feels so fresh, it is first and foremost an enticing showcase of Santigold’s musical roots. Her tropical flair has set her apart from her peers ever since her debut album, Santogold, was released in 2008, when tracks like the effervescent “L.E.S. Artistes” cut through the white-boy mundanity of ‘00s indie like a machete through a coconut. There’s a very clear through-line from the upbeat ska pop of Santogold to “Coo Coo Coo,” the first track from I Don’t Want; not only in its bouncy instrumentation and Santi’s lilting patois, but in its lyrical attitude. While “L.E.S. Artistes” was a takedown of NYC’s pseudo-bohemian culture, “Coo Coo Coo” takes on catcalling and street harassment with the same blistering barbs veiled in sugar-coated beats. “Who are you, you, you?/Telling me that’s nice and wet/Thinking you, you, you/Got a shining hope, baby,” Santi sings in the pre-chorus, while the earthquake-triggering bass mimics her determined, rhythmic footsteps.
Ironically, Santi recorded I Don’t Want on the fly, while pregnant with twins, but nothing is an afterthought or seems rushed in any way – and perhaps the capsular environment and time constraints of her pregnancy gave the record an added focus, its atmosphere completely insular and measured. The album is mixed like a true dancehall mixtape, each track crossfading into the next, meant to be thrown on a record player at a chill house party, in a haze of rum and weed. “Wha’ You Feel Like,” another early highlight, propels the first half of the album with little more than a resounding dancehall beat and Santi’s placid flow. “Cock-it-up on ya take you for a rough ride/Bashy bashy, mi feel bashy bashy,” she coos, almost tumbling over the beat in her muted lust. There’s a fine line between minimal and empty, and musically, “Wha’ You Feel Like” balances its negative space expertly. It’s a moment where, if there was still any question, Santigold’s dancehall chops become indisputable.
If “Wha’ You Feel Like” sets I Don’t Want’s tone, “Don’t Blame Me” launches it into the stratosphere, largely thanks to a scintillating feature from Jamaican dancehall and reggae performer Shenseea. Already making serious waves in the dancehall scene at only 21-years-old, Shenseea’s low-register chatting is the perfect foil to Santi’s high-pitched raps. This sweet and salty mélange is immediately appetizing, and “Don’t Blame Me”’s earworm chorus makes it the most radio-ready track I Don’t Want has to offer, which, given the album’s general pop sensibility, is a real accolade. You can easily picture “Don’t Blame Me” becoming a bona fide hit, which further illustrates that I Don’t Want isn’t a mere toe-dip into the genre, but an authentic experience.
Is Santigold a dancehall artist now? Frankly, she could be if she wanted to. In many ways, I Don’t Want seems like the culmination of so many facets of Santi’s persona: genre-hopping pop music, tropical melodies, the African diaspora, no-nonsense attitude. In a way, it would be somewhat affirming to see her career take on new life within the tight-knit dancehall community, but more likely, this album will serve as an important marker in her discography, a moment when everything she stands for came together to make something truly special, a milestone in the dancehall movement that tested the genre’s boundaries and won.