The best thing about this album is that if you listen on Spotify, it’s listed as a Sting album, but every track is annotated as “with Shaggy”. So the song titles become “Don’t Make Me Wait with Shaggy”, “If You Can’t Find Love with Shaggy”, “Just One Lifetime with Shaggy”, and so on. Fitting, because it’s still strange to think of Shaggy as a featured performer. I know the dude’s got like a dozen albums out there, but I still have a hard time thinking of him as anything more than a guest star – the guy you get to spruce up your crappy single cuz your lead can’t carry it by themselves (see also: Busta Rhymes). Even on “It Wasn’t Me” he sounded like a guest on his own song ($2000 Jeopardy question: Who was the other guy? Rickrack or something?). So naturally, one’s thought when it comes to this album is “why is Sting doing this?”, as though just anyone can waltz into New York and record an album with Shaggy.
As it turns out, Sting and Shaggy are good buds, and late-career collabs like this are just how good buds help each other out in the biz. It happened with Mike Love and his good friends John Stamos and Mark McGrath, it happened with Metallica and Lou Reed, and if anyone wants to be friends with Lou Bega I’m sure it’ll happen to him too. Now I haven’t exactly kept up with Mr. Boombastic these days but I have been somewhat up-to-date with Sting, mostly out of pure nostalgia. I still think he’s a supreme talent, albeit one with a muse that frequently leads him to produce utter shite. His career choices over the last two decades have been questionable at best; he just pops up every few years and does whatever the hell he wants, be it fool around with a lute, make a 15th century Christmas album, write a musical, or tour around with a full orchestra. Occasionally he’ll pop up at a high-profile event like the NBA All-Star game just to show everyone he’s still the master. But he’s at the point where he’s full-on grappling with his legacy, fully aware he’s reached the age where rock stars like him begin to kick the bucket.
Still, the high watermark for Sting these days remains “amusing failure”, which I chalk up to Sting’s tendency to overthink every last detail more than anything else. Obviously, you don’t have to worry about that here. I mean, the cover really says it all: just two good pals renting bikes so they can cruise the sectioned-off strip and imagine what it’s like to not have $60,000,000 in your bank account. That alone ups the squirm factor by about three notches; we know that Sting accepted £1m to play a private show for a murderous dictator, and yet here he is whining about having to take the subway to work the night shift. Or when he plays the part of a struggling jazz musician who sexually harasses a woman with his trombone until she moves away. Not saying a rich superstar can’t write about stuff like that, but it’s difficult when your lyrics are as clunky and obtuse as Sting’s are. Shaggy on the other hand sorta gets it; music like this is supposed to be freewheeling and lyrically incomprehensible, full of Jamaican slang and lines that don’t have to do anything but scan properly.
But I suppose no one’s really listening to this with an ear for quality. Maybe somewhere on the planet there’s an intersection between the fanbases of Sting and Shaggy but I can’t imagine where that might be. Perhaps a child of the 80’s whose parents had multiple copies of Ten Summoner’s Tales, who just so happened to be in a 15-year long coma. For everyone else wondering what the hell these two New York rastas got themselves into, let me just point out that Track #1 gives you everything you hoped for; hip-hop airhorns, Shaggy describing a phone call where Sting “say him wan come hold-a vibes”, then Sting adopting a faux-Jamaican accent and claiming to be haunted by the ghost of “Bob Mah-ley”. With a soul full of positive vibrations, and dreams of Jamiaca and the Caribbean nation…could this be the best vacation ever? Could Sting & Shaggy be the best island friends since Eric & Raz?
Look, I appreciate the fact that they both try to meet each other halfway. Sting obviously can’t replicate what Shaggy does, and Shaggy sounds ridiculous every time he tries to slow things down. So mostly they just clumsily trade verses. One can just imagine the hype man…”y’all ready for some Sting?” “Alright, now here comes Shaggy!” “It’s Sting’s turn again!” This approach kinda sorta works when you’re at the right tempo, slow enough to allow Sting to sing his bits while Shaggy can rap over it in double time. If it’s too slow it’s just a snooze, since Shaggy can’t really do his thing, and these slow reggae grooves aren’t really Sting’s strong suit. They hit the sweet spot on a few tracks: “Morning is Coming”, “Just One Lifetime”, “Don’t Make Me Wait”, and “To Love and Be Loved”. Okay so on that last one you do have to hear Sting say “skank if you’re skanking”. But they’re catchy tunes, the likes of which we haven’t heard on a Sting album since The Dream of the Blue Turtles. In fact one can picture this album being recorded as a follow-up to that one; granted, the songwriting isn’t there, and the attempts at sultry stuff like “Moon Over Bourbon Street” are pretty awful (“Crooked Tree” and “Sad Trombone” are major bummers). Plus, Sting doesn’t really have his upper register anymore, which really would’ve come in handy here.
There’s one other track I want to mention here: “Dreaming in the USA”, which sounds like an overt attempt to place a memorable chorus on the radio. Though the song itself isn’t really about this, it really does strike me that this is the sort of thing that could only happen in America. It’s still the only place in the world where a washed-up AOR star from England and a frog-voiced one-hit wonder from Jamaica can hook up and produce a thoroughly mediocre reggae album. Eat it, Mr. President!!