One of the things dancehall does supremely well is project authority. The genre is born in competition – between soundsystems, between MCs. While rappers jealously guard their beats, dancehall MCs submit themselves to judgement over the same riddims as their peers, and one way to stand out is through sheer stentorian dominance. Not every MC takes this route – some are lovers, some jokers, some storytellers – but I’d guess for casual Western listeners the platonic form of dancehall involves a gruff bark riding atop a beat like Zeus on his thundercloud.
This is the image “It Wasn’t Me” has so much fun with. Shaggy’s character – the “true player” – takes the MC’s self-confidence to a level that rewrites reality itself. His helpless partner, Rikrok, struggles to find a detail that will make Shaggy relent, back down, admit there are things you simply can’t brazen out. But Shaggy is as remorseless as he wants his poor protégé to be. “It wasn’t me. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t me.”
Male duets are rare at the top – this one is unique for being staged as a buddy comedy, and Rikrok, the featured artist, pulls more than his weight as straight man. His lilting, gentle storytelling reminds me of Craig David, giving an extra kick to the lover vs player theme, and lending the song a sweetness its lyrics hardly suggest. If there’s a dreamier, milder-mannered way to sing “picture this, we were both buck naked, banging on the bathroom floor”, I can’t readily imagine it. And the music is more in line with Rikrok’s vocals – a springtime saunter built on that hazy four-note keyboard run, which barely stretches itself once it’s past the introduction. (Though there are a few nice touches, like that extra percussive hit on each beat once Shaggy starts laying down the law.)
Rikrok gets the last word too, shutting down Shaggy’s dreadful advice – “you may think that you’re a player but you’re completely lost” – and leaving an odd hole in the song where you expect a third set of “It wasn’t me” refrains. But the older man’s top billing is no injustice. This is a panto where we remember the villain. Shaggy’s absurd denials are the heart and hook of the song, the part anybody repeated. Taken seriously, his advice isn’t just bad, it’s sinister – gaslighting in excelsis, a determined attempt to simply overrule someone else’s memory of events. And we put up with a public sphere packed with Shaggys, who know that a massive, repeated lie can often tramp the truth down for long enough that they get away with it.
Of course, “It Wasn’t Me” isn’t taking anything seriously, or asking you to – it’s a jaunty novelty record, which Shaggy never planned as a career-reviving hit. Even so there’s something real behind his rogueish patter. The reason brazen public liars get away with it is partly because the chutzpah required is charismatic, even attractive, to anyone already inclined to believe them. As a relationship counsellor, Shaggy is a bust. But he has that charisma, and I leave the record wanting more of it.