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For his third-full length album Back 2 Life, Sean Kingston immensely expanded his songwriting role, nixed the multi-producer approach of his last release, and pushed for a fresh new sound. Like his 2007 self-titled debut (featuring the double-platinum breakout hit “Beautiful Girls”) and 2009’s Tomorrow (featuring the smash singles “Fire Burning” and “Face Drop”), Back 2 Life boldly fuses reggae, hip-hop, R&B, and electro to create melody-soaked pop. But on Back 2 Life, the singer/songwriter blends his newly strengthened vocals with fiercely inventive electronic effects and hard-hitting live instrumentation to offer up his most passionately inspired work to date.
For Kingston, the urge to achieve the powerfully vibrant sound that permeates Back 2 Life was born during his recovery from a devastating accident. In May 2011, while jet skiing in Miami Beach, Kingston crashed into a bridge and suffered a shattered wrist, broken jaw, and water in his lungs. After spending nearly a month in the hospital and undergoing two emergency open-heart surgeries to repair a torn aorta, the Jamaica-bred 22-year-old headed to his Miami Beach home and took two months to heal—and start plotting his return to the studio. “I couldn’t go anywhere while I was recovering, so I spent all my time writing songs and listening to beats,” recalls Kingston. “All I wanted was to get back to doing music, which is what I’ve been devoting my life to since I was eight-years-old.”
Fully healed and ready to record, Kingston flew to Los Angeles in September and began working on Back 2 Life. Teaming up with Jonathan “J.R.” Rotem (who served as producer on Kingston’s first two albums and has also worked with artists like Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, 50 Cent, Rick Ross, Flo Rida, and Britney Spears), Kingston set out to tap into his musical roots. “After the accident, I was really humbled and felt the need to get back to my culture,” says Kingston, who was born in Miami but moved to Jamaica when he was seven. “This album’s much more organic than anything I’ve done before—the music’s real and it hits you on a gut level.”
Indeed, Back 2 Life emerges as Kingston’s most richly eclectic and ambitious album so far. On the album’s lead single “Back 2 Life (Live It Up),” for instance, Kingston samples the vocals from Soul II Soul classic of the same name and twists the lyrics into a triumphant call to action. Sweeping and celebratory, the song mixes pummeling beats with chilling synth effects and Kingston’s fearless assertion that “what won’t kill me makes me stronger.” After a masterful guest rap from T.I., “Back 2 Life (Live It Up)” dissolves into a stripped-down pairing of sampled vocals and delicate piano work that’s both stark and stunning.
Although Kingston keeps up that heady intensity throughout Back 2 Life, many of the tracks are built on party-ready hooks and amped-up spirit. With its fat, bouncy, hip-swinging beats, “Bomba” combines flamenco-flavored acoustic guitars, soaring vocals, and pounding live percussion in the sonic equivalent of some epic beach party. On the sweetly anthemic, stadium-ready “100,000 People” (featuring Wiz Khalifa), Kingston gets romantic as he serenades a girl who’s “got them curves like a race track,” claiming that “I can pick you out of 100,000 people.” And on “Born To Be Wild” (an infectiously playful number inspired by a hotel-room revisiting of The Lion King), Kingston backs a sample of The Tokens’ “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” with a hotstepping beat and lovestruck lyrics about his very own “queen of the jungle.”
Elsewhere on Back 2 Life Kingston explores post-breakup heartache, with tracks like “Voices” (a frenetic, handclap-driven powerhouse) perfectly capturing the torment of obsessing over your ex. The sweet and breezy “She’s Just Not You” also looks at lovesick infatuation, this time taking a doo-wop-meets-dancefloor approach that includes gently strummed guitar, swaying harmonies, and throbbing beats (“That song’s me talking about the end of a relationship with a girl who was everything to me,” explains Kingston, “and how the next girl could be perfect—a girl straight out of a movie or off the cover of a magazine—but none of that matters ‘cause she’s just not you”). One of Back 2 Life’s most high-drama moments, “Piano” begins as a tender ballad then warps into synth-drenched kiss-off to a no-good girl. Propelled by heartbeat-like percussion and Kingston’s pained lyrics about the one who “crushed my soul” and “took my world,” “Piano” crests with a flurry of strings and a hauntingly sorrowful opera sample.
“This album’s a really honest reflection of where I’m at in my life right now,” says Kingston. “I’m proud that it shows everything, because it shows my growth too.” No doubt, Kingston’s come a long way since he first began recording songs on the tiny personal studio his mother bought him when he was 11-years-old. Back then, Kingston would whip up his own reggae-pop hybrids and perform them local block parties and talent shows in Miami (to which he returned after spending several years living with his father in Kingston, Jamaica). But when his mother was convicted of tax evasion and bank fraud and sent to federal prison, the 15-year-old Kingston had to put his music dreams on temporary hold. After a brief period of homelessness, Kingston began bouncing around the homes of his friends and relatives and ultimately landed a lawn-mowing job to earn the money he needed to make a demo. Thanks largely to Kingston’s dogged persistence in pursuing every hit-making producer he could find online, that demo ended up getting him signed to Rotem’s then-newly-launched label Beluga Heights in 2006—a deal quickly followed by a joint contract with Epic Records and the release of a debut album that went on to sell more than a million copies worldwide and spawn three back-to-back Top 10 singles. To date Sean has sold more than 12.5 million tracks.
“A lot’s happened over the past few years—I’ve traveled the world and had relationships and dealt with breakups, so I’m singing from the heart about things that I actually went through,” says Kingston. In capturing the most momentous of those experiences—the accident that nearly cost him his life—Kingston sought to stay positive and focus on his deepened sense of strength and gratitude. “My accident really slowed me down for a while and changed the way I look at things,” he says. “I knew I needed to address that on the album, but my goal was to do it in an upbeat sort of way. So the songs on Back 2 Life are catchy and uptempo and everyone can have a great time to them, but at the same there’s no doubt that it’s all the way real.”