Where's My Lollipop?

After 12 years in the business peppered with who knows how many No. 1 singles, reggae icon Buju Banton is still frustrated. Fondly known as the Gargamel, a name given to him by his Jamaican brethren, he does not believe he has achieved the recognition he deserves. "The way the system is set up, it's not set up for me, Buju Banton, to be here," he says. "I was never given the opportunity to reach my full potential. I never got the accolades or the credits that were due to me."

In his gruff voice, Banton insists he's not completely bitter about his market share today. But he's acutely aware that other DJs and singers have received less slapping around from the press and public over the years. Banton is referring directly to fellow reggae artists: Beenie Man and his album Art and Life, and Shabba Ranks with X-tra Naked and As Raw as Ever -- two Grammy-winners who've released songs with similarly coarse material.

Banton, however, ended up singled out for his controversial lyrics to an early-'90s song, "Boom Bye Bye," which led to an outcry in the gay community. The repercussions over the song, which advocated violence against homosexuals (or "batty boys," as they're known in Jamaica), meant a virtual crib-death for the young artist in the desirable crossover market. "Through my travels I've seen certain things that I don't believe in and don't agree with, due to my religious beliefs" is how Banton sums up the storm. "After reading the Bible, understanding these things and bringing them across in my music, many people have fought against me in an attempt to bring me down. Others who sang about the same things have won Grammys," he counters, "but I've never even won a lollipop!"

Ten years later, Banton (born Mark Anthony Myrie) has moved on, candy be damned. Within the dancehall community, Banton remains revered as one of the strongest figures worldwide. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- the challenges illustrated above, he appears to have grown spiritually, artistically and personally. For evidence, look no further than Banton's latest album, Friends for Life, issued via Florida-based reggae powerhouse VP Records.

The 18-track collection is all over the reggae music map, containing a mixture of hard-core dancehall anthems, flavorful old-school R&B, ska beats, sensitive ballads and message-driven roots. "The album is quite diverse, and I couldn't compare it with any of my previous work," Banton says. "Every new work to me is a step above my previous one. We titled the album Friends for Life because of the great people I've gotten to know over the years in this business and the countless fans. My fans are my friends for life, and I love my friends."

Some of his friends included on the album are pinup Beres Hammond, rapper Fat Joe, dancehall diva Nadine Sutherland, 2003 reggae Grammy nominee Bounty Killer and current reggae chart-topper and brethren from the early days Wayne Wonder. The album also includes some dynamic behind-the-scenes work of his "other friends" in the industry, top musicians and producers from the island in the sun.

Many of those friends have been wondering where Banton has been -- after all, his previous album, Unchained Spirit, was released three years ago. On the disabled list, as it turns out. "I normally take a year to put a record together, and after it's been released, I like to take a year to promote and tour with it," he continues. "I love to play [soccer], and last year I dislocated my knee. I was out of commission for six months recovering, so I was unable to work on my music. This resulted in the album being delayed. Nevertheless, good things come to those who wait, and it's better to be late than never."

Now this intelligent, conscious Rastafarian has finally attained the distance and freedom needed to associate himself with positive statements. Whether he's singing about the beauty of women, passionately delivering an ode to true friendship or preaching about the need to practice safe sex, Banton's distinctively growly voice adds another unique edge to his delivery of the message.

"Music must be diverse," he explains. "When you put it into play, it should take you elsewhere. It should take you to a higher height. I hate stagnation in life and in whatever I do, so my music is a perfect example of the opposite of that stagnation."

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Lady English