Jay Sean, Scala, London
An urban legend in the making
Thursday 11 November 2004
After 12 months spent touring the length and breadth of the country, performing at schools, melas and clubs, Jay Sean is headlining the Scala on the day that his debut album, Me Against Myself, is released.
Touted as the UK's first British-Asian urban pop star, Sean's glossy, saccharine R&B embellished with Asian flourishes (samples from Bollywood films, dhol percussion, Punjabi lyrics) has certainly hit the spot among the key demographic for record labels: the majority of his audience is made up of smartly dressed young women.
Sean bounds on stage in the de rigueur R&B uniform - loose-fitting distressed denim and an Adidas tracksuit top. He's flanked by two close friends, the bhangra singer Juggy D, who serves as Sean's hype man and sparring partner tonight, and the super-producer Rishi Rich (who has worked with Mary J Blige, Britney Spears, Ricky Martin and Estelle). Rich sips on a Red Bull: it's hardly bling but it sums up the trio - they're down-to-earth lads who aren't trying to be something they're not.
Sean, somewhat surprisingly, is backed by a band comprising two guitarists, two keyboard players, a drummer and a DJ. He opens with "You Don't Know Me", a restrained response to the so-called "haterz". Sung over a heavy-rock instrumental cover of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition", Sean's performance is supercharged. He follows this with a similarly robust, pacy and raw reinterpretation of the slick R&B of one of his three single releases, "Eyes on You".
Notwithstanding Rich's beautifully balanced hip hop/R&B production, Sean's vocal talent commands centre stage. The rock opening has turned the script on its head and given the audience something unexpected, but the tempo soon drops as Sean slips into the smoochy soul of "Don't Rush", a track that feels far more honest and gritty live when backed only by acoustic guitar.
The stripped-down accompaniment remains for "Me Against Myself", a song that captures Sean's creative struggle and showcases the range of his repertoire. The wannabe rapper delivers messages of substance about where his heart lies - he started out in a hip hop outfit before embarking on his more successful pop/R&B career path.
Sean's current single "Stolen", which uses a hypnotic Asha Bhosle sample from a 1970s Bollywood film (Bhosle was the muse for Cornershop's No 1 single "Brimful of Asha") sees the band return and raises the loudest cheer of the night. The atmosphere is heady.
Sean then treats us to some impromptu beat-boxing, spitting out the backing track to Panjabi MC's "Mundian Te Bach Ke" as Juggy D sings the lyrics - a homage to the track that acted as a catalyst for his success by stimulating awareness and interest in urban Asian music. It's party time and the gig is brought to a close with the celebratory, anthemic sound of Sean's Top 10 single from summer 2003, "Nachna Tera Naal (Dance with You)", causing a sea of hands holding cameraphones to rise wearily one last time. With his ability to sing, rap and beat-box, the Craig David comparisons - an artist to whom Sean is frequently likened - are embarrassingly wide of the mark.
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