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King Without a Beard: The Rise and Fall and Rise of a Former Reggae Star

As Matisyahu tours on ‘Spark Seeker,’ will his pop fans snuff out the spiritual fire that lifted him to the top of the charts?

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Matisyahu, 2012. (Mark Squires)
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The copies of Matisyahu’s debut, Shake Off the Dust… Arise, metastasized in hallways. Describing how he made the album was one of the few moments during our talk when Matisyahu sprang to life. He knew at the time he was creating something new: “It was like, taking the roots-reggae thing and connecting it with all the elements of this Chabad Hasidish knowledge,” he said. “It was a very fun project. It was my first creative outlet after being in Yeshiva for a long period of time.”

Everyone at my yeshiva had heard Jewish religious music, of course. To enjoy it was to take your place within a grand tradition, one that had come before you and would be there after you leave. It was also a little lame, something to be enjoyed only if fenced off from the rest of your life. Back in 2004, when it came out, Shake off the Dust felt vital, sudden, important—to us, at least. On a track like “Warrior,” a seven-minute jam that never loses its focus, Matisyahu’s voice is a multifaceted diamond. Rap, expressions of spiritual desire, beat-boxing—any musical element he could mine shines, gorgeously. There was a bluntness in the spirituality of a song like “Chop ’Em Down,” but also a deep sense of mystery—“from the forest itself comes the handle for the ax,” he sang, as ska-style horns sway in the background. Keyboards lightly clear a path for his booming voice, a guitar is picked with lazy determination. If you listened enough, eventually, you thought, you could get on his level, whatever that was.

But the 2005 album Live at Stubb’s is the thing from which we’re still feeling aftershocks. “While Shake Off the Dust… Arise had its dreamy, mystical, and more relaxed side, Stubb’s is filled with rousing energy,” wrote AllMusic’s David Jeffries, and he was right. Stubb’s has multiple seven-minute tracks, and there’s barely a wasted moment, and never one that doesn’t seem to be working toward a greater whole. The live Stubb’s version of “King Without a Crown”—initially off of Shake Off the Dust—is the one that became a massive radio hit, reaching No. 28 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 7 on Billboard Hot Modern Rock Tracks. (“Hot” and “modern” had rarely been used in relation to “Orthodox.”) A shorter studio version of it was then placed on Matisyahu’s second studio album Youth and as a BestBuy Exclusive you could also buy the song remixed by Mike D of the Beastie Boys, which begins with Mike D yelling “Matisyahu, y’all!” Videos were made for both the live and Youth versions of the song, and the song soon got overplayed.

The live video for “King Without a Crown” gets across the energy of Matisyahu’s rise. The location was perfect—recorded in Austin, Texas, of all non-Jewy places, in February 2005. “With these demons surround all around to bring me down to negativity,” he raps, before puffing his chest, back when he wore a long beard and glasses. “But I believe, yes I believe, I said I BELIEVE!” He stage-dives into the crowd, heedless of the fact that, you know, women might touch him while doing so. At a time when high school was getting more and more oppressive, and later, in those lonely early months of college, I’d do my best to try to channel the freedom I had seen in the “King” video.

For me, and for legions of fans, Matis became a symbol, and if there’s one thing Jews love, it’s symbols. Rabbis started singing his songs in the halls, happy to tell you the hidden references to spiritual texts within them if you approached, as if RapGenius was actually Talmudic. Among the Haredi students and others, bragging rights were granted Six Degrees style—did your rabbi house Matisyahu on his West Coast Tour? Did you know someone who davened with him? Did you actually pray with him yourself?

***

As I got older and less religious, Matisyahu meant less and less, but his music refused to let go. In college, I’d make sure my roommate had left for class before I’d blast Youth, which came out in March of 2006. I would dig through my stores of uncool clothing to find the yarmulke my mother had made me pack. I’d put it on and listen to “Jerusalem,” my distaste for the Israeli government be damned. The album branches out musically—the eponymous single has a touch of metal; “What I’m Fighting For” is quiet acoustic—and, like Stubb’s, went gold, which probably (and I’m guessing here) is what led studio execs to push through that fourth mess of an album, Light.

Delayed several times due to aggressive touring and Matisyahu constantly adding new songs, Light has the feel of an album that can’t make up its mind. The album’s final track, the solemn and yearning “Silence,” wouldn’t sound out of place coming from Bon Iver, but paired with the overly saccharine hit “One Day,” none of it makes sense. Partially written by Bruno Mars, “One Day” was referred to by The Onion’s nonsatirical AV Club as “pure Velveeta, or whatever it is they smear on crackers where Desmond Dekker’s progeny and actual Israelites frolic in harmony.” Was it bad enough that it begged for a clean slate? Is that what led Matisyahu to shave his beard? The timing makes it plausible: In the three years between “One Day” and the Beardshaving, Matisyahu stuck to releasing small live EPs and a sequel to Stubb’s, Live at Stubb’s II. When he finally made headlines again, those who weren’t personally invested in Matisyahu’s identity shrugged, or worse. “Matisyahu Shaves Beard, Reminding World of His Existence,” laughed Gawker.

Seven months later, instead of back-to-basics, or back-to-whatever, we got Spark Seeker, which fully embraces the electro-sheen that had started to find its way into Matisyahu’s work a few albums back. It’s got one-time Diddy collaborator and current Orthodox Jew Shyne on it, because it was only a matter of time before Matisyahu and Shyne did something together. The album’s lyrics are mostly boilerplate about being optimistic, with a few auto-tuned spiritual asides. If you ever wondered if you could sit through an auto-tuned sermon, as happens on “Searchin’ ”  without laughing, it’s possible after about six or seven listens, after which you just start to feel sad.

Like Kabbalah in the 1990s, Spark Seeker seems to have taken what was unique about Matisyahu’s voice and watered it down behind whatever is popular these days. That might not have been the intention, but it sure worked. Debuting at  No. 19 on Billboard with first week sales of 16,000, it’s still hanging around the Reggae charts 57 weeks later. Listening to it, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything that resembles Marley or Dekker or current reggae stars like Protoje—and it’d be very hard to tell Matisyahu not to keep doing whatever it is that he’s doing so well.

***

Back in Morristown, Matis-discovered opener Levi Robin did his singer-songwriter thing. His voice was gorgeous, his songs earnest and plain—he sounded as if a Mumford Son had gone on Birthright and never looked back. Matisyahu had been hyping Robin a lot on Twitter. Robin’s most interesting moment came, Marco Rubio-style, when he took a sip from a bottle of water. He said the blessing for it, shehakol, and was met with nervous laughter, then applause. The laughers seemed mildly shocked that someone on a stage could be saying the blessings that they say in their day-to-day lives, until they remembered this was a Matisyahu show. The sold-out crowd of 1,300 at the Morristown MPAC, known locally as the Community Theater, was by my estimate half Orthodox and half not-Orthodox. Whole families sitting down, up to and including grandparents.

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King Without a Beard: The Rise and Fall and Rise of a Former Reggae Star

As Matisyahu tours on ‘Spark Seeker,’ will his pop fans snuff out the spiritual fire that lifted him to the top of the charts?