Shontelle Layne: focus pon me | Caribbean Beat

Originally written for and published in Caribbean Beat magazine in 2008

Focus pon me: that’s the title of one of the tracks Shontelle Layne wrote for her debut album. But really, it’s all about the music.

It’s been a busy few years for Shontelle Layne. In between working towards a degree in entertainment law at the University of the West Indies at Cave Hill, Layne has penned hit songs for countless soca singers in her native Barbados, like Natalie Burke, TC, and most famously Alison Hinds, for whom she wrote Roll in 2005.

Hearing Roll prompted SRP Records producers Carl Sturken and Evan Rogers to go in search of Layne, in order to license the track. But after taking one look at her and listening to her sing, they signed her as a recording artiste, eventually helping her secure a deal with Steve Rifkind’s SRC Records, a subsidiary of Universal-Motown, in August 2006.

Just a few credits short of completing her law degree, Layne had to make a difficult decision: finish her degree, or seize the opportunities that were presenting themselves. And as she recognises, she had an incredible string of luck that seems to predestine her for music stardom.

Before entering UWI, she used to tell her mother she would be the Barbadian Missy Elliott: singing, writing, rapping, producing and making hit music. The declaration seems prophetic now.

The songs on her 11-track debut album, Shontelligence (due for release in the first quarter of this year), are strong and diverse.

“There’s some pop/rock, R&B, hip-hop…but most of it is infused with sounds of the Caribbean…some of the beats are straight-up reggae beats. So it’s like a tropical pop album or something!” Layne laughs (she has a dry and witty sense of humour).

Producers like Stargate (who also worked on Beyoncé’s Irreplaceable) have worked on the tracks, and few, if any, can be neatly classified into a single genre. There is the reggae/hip-hop infused Blaze It Up, with Bermudan superstar Collie Budz. There are heartfelt ballads like Cold Cold Summer, harking back to old-school soul and R&B, and I Crave You, written over the guitar line and chord progressions some might remember from Sting’s Shape of My Heart.

There’s the uplifting, world-beat-flavoured pop anthem, Superwoman (authored by Amanda Ghost, and the only track on the album Layne did not write or co-write).

There are more serious numbers like Ghetto Lullaby, words of wisdom she was inspired to write for her youngest sister; and Life is Not An Easy Road, which she wrote as a song of hope for those who suffer poverty and oppression anywhere in the world.

There are also two irresistible and infectious dance tracks, both of which are strong contenders to be her debut single: Naughty, which she sings with Jamaican dancehall star Beenie Man, and Focus Pon Me.

Of course there is Roll, which, left to her, probably would have not made it on to the album at all, and which she recorded at the request of her record company. Though she co-owns all the rights to the song with Trinidadian producer Sheldon “Shel Shok” Benjamin, she has received some backlash—particularly in Barbados—and met some confusion on the road as to who the song “belongs” to. (You can hear Layne’s version, which differs from the original Hinds recording, at www.shontellemusic.com.)

Layne has all the ingredients for success. Her vocals are assertive and versatile, and she has a flair for writing catchy hooks and snappy lyrics in a variety of styles. She has a svelte, athletic and sultry look that record companies can market. She has the brains and business savvy—which she credits to her law studies and her manager, Sonia Mullins—to help her avoid many of the pitfalls and mistakes that many young artistes encounter in the commercial music business.

But most striking of all is how this young woman, still only 24, remains grounded, confident yet humble, and balanced despite the demands of a career that is accelerating to full speed.

Audiences and critics will no doubt fall into the easy trap of comparing her to her compatriot Rihanna (with whom she shares a manager; who was also first produced by SRP Records; who is also on a Universal-Motown label, Def Jam; and with whom she has been friends since their teenage years, when Layne, a drill sergeant, had to make Rihanna, an unruly cadet, drop down and give her 10 push-ups). No doubt they’ll continue to make a fuss about Roll. But that would be to miss the point. And for Shontelle Layne, the point has always been the music.

For more information: www.myspace.com/shontellemusic

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