This Kevin Martin-produced LP widens the scope of the duo's 2015 mixtape, Murder, with mostly impressive results.
For the most part, Martin's in fine form too. He loves to quote his own musical ideas from previous albums and other projects, mixing up road-tested techniques with new flourishes. On "Dust," the instrumental is little more than one very juicy acid line, with gusts of reverb and white noise that accentuate high-intensity moments. Musically, it's one of the most memorable moments on the album, though Stern's vocal style comes off a little mannered, like she's emulating somebody else's Jamaican dancehall affect. On "Clouds," her voice gets drowned out by an overly generous helping of reverb, and the thinness of the sound design here makes it one of the LP's more meh moments. The reverb is cranked on "Memorial Day" too, but it enriches the spectral quality of her voice rather than smudging the character out of it.
Miss Red is not the first non-Jamaican to sing reggae or dancehall in a patois style. And while it's right to be wary of the power dynamics, shouting it down as brazen appropriation elides some of the complexities. There's a long history of outsider artists trying to make it in dancehall and reggae, and being received more or less with open arms. One of the world's great reggae soundsystems is run by a Japanese DJ named Mighty Crown, a global soundclash champion who can commandeer a microphone and hype up thousands of screaming Jamaicans. Going back to the '80s, even New York rappers like KRS-One and Run DMC did a fake patois on some of their best-known songs. The fact that Miss Red puts on a Jamaican accent to take part in a tradition that more or less requires it isn't really the point. The point is that white interlopers often end up with the bookings and the press while brown and black pioneers are left behind. So it actually falls on fans, journalists and industry people to make space for the originators, not just the white artists who come along and make it their own.
To her credit, Miss Red is clearly a dedicated student of Jamaican music. Her lucid, confident phrasing is evidence of years spent listening and learning from the greats. True dancehall icons have stylistic calling cards—noises, vocal tricks or turns of phrase that crop up in nearly all of their songs. Stern has trademarks of her own, from the hyper-enunciated stage whisper she does on "Dagga" to the falsetto squeak that punctuates her phrases on "Shock Out," all of which prove that she's more than just a proficient mimic. A lot of these techniques had already started to develop on Murder, Stern and Martin's 2015 mixtape, a quick-and-dirty recording that formed the raw foundation of what they're doing here. On K.O their ideas are rendered in higher fidelity, and while not every track on here leaves a lasting impression, the album as a whole certainly does.