Exco Levi ADD


Album Review: Exco Levi - Born To Be Free


by Steve Topple

Album Review: Exco Levi - Born To Be Free

Jamaica-Canadian and five-times Juno Award winner Exco Levi hasn’t technically released a full album since 2017’s Narrative – albeit with the Black Creek mixtape dropping in 2021. So, eight years’ on, what’s Levi got to say for himself, now?

Born To Be Free, released via Penthouse Records, is a complete departure from Black Creek, taking Levi (mostly) back to his Reggae roots and away from the Trap Dancehall sound that permeated the mixtape. That’s not a bad thing (nor was Black Creek a bad thing either). Most of the production comes from Donovan Germain for Penthouse Records – leaving the album a slick, tidy, and sleek project.

The album opens with the title track – a smooth, upbeat, and Soul-laced affair, containing some traditional Reggae musical devices but also underscored by pleasing attention to detail on the other instrumental lines – like a flowing string section, and Sherita Lewis’ well-executed and brilliantly arranged Soul backing vocals.

Slave Trade continues the Reggae theme but shifts the focus to something more unsettling and darker – moving Born To Be Free into a minor key, and with a slightly stripped-back arrangement, albeit with those soulful backing vocals coming from Adena Myrie. There’s a haunting but brief guitar solo, and the whole thing is affecting.

By Any Means is another brooding affair, this time though moving the album into Dub – employing heavy use of breaks, synths, samples, and some well-placed reverb, with the instrumental focus being on Dean Fraser and Okiel Mcintyre excellent horns.

Smile Africa marks a change – moving Born To Be Free into soulful Afrobeats territory, with a rich yet unfussy sound, complex chord progressions, and strong backing vocals from Myrie again. H.I.M. takes the album back to Reggae but with hints of the Revival style present, while One Life is a bright and positively upbeat 90s-feeling Reggae cut.

White Squall changes the tack of Born To Be Free again – going hard on a Revival Reggae version of the 1982 Don Carlos track, but expanding the usual Hip Hop drums into something more Trap with their hi-hat buzz rolls and a striking bridge where the sound smooths out and deepens, almost like a storm coming.

Then, just to keep you on your toes, Fine Tooth Comb is pure, Old Skool Reggae – with Lewis doing some wonderful call and response backing vocals against a backdrop of almost Ska-like stomping beats and some well-placed horns. Frozen Heart then shifts the album to something far away from Reggae, from producer Dennis Biello for Wicked Vybz Records - reminiscent of 80s Funky Soul with its rasping synths but with Levi performing a slick singjay across the top.

The previously-released Strive With Me (from the Boxing Around Riddim) is more Reggae-meets-Dub across a stark arrangement that emphasises the backing vocals and horns – but then That's What She Loves featuring seasoned artist Duane Stephenson is an interesting merger of Reggae vibes across what is essentially a Soca beat, albeit slowed down from the usual BPM. Top Of The Moon returns the sound to brooding Reggae, with great chord progressions and a nice guitar line, sparkling like moonlight; Young Girl follows this in a similar vein but as a reimagining of the Carlos classic.

However, Red Carpet smashes everything that came before it – turning Born To Be Free to Dancehall, heavy on the EDM synths including choppy strings and some ambient, dampened synths. A refreshing change from the rest of the album, showing Levi’s versatility.

The album closes with the previously-released Change Your Mind featuring the always-excellent Charly Black and a brief appearance from Canadian DJ SpexDaBoss. Here, the sound is probably the most interesting of the album: Reggaeton beats meet Afro Swing vocals coupled with some Trap drums and that EDM-inspired Dancehall use of rasping yet slightly dampened and ambient and strings. It’s pure class from producer Wayne Ford Levy for High Priest Music – and should have been a huge hit.

Overall, Born To Be Free is a musically strong body of work – showing detailed variations on Roots Reggae as well as some solid and well-executed variations on this, which on occasion are actually the stronger tracks musically. Of course, Levi’s vocals are sterling across the album. He’s always been a solid performer – and here is no exception, as he peaks and troughs across the varying musical palettes with ease and dexterity, showing (like on Black Creek) that he can turn his hand to anything.

However, it is perhaps the lyrical content of Born To Be Free which is the high point of the project. Across the album, Levi deals in the majority with complex social, political, and spiritual issues – aside from lighter tracks like the Lovers-inspired That's What She Loves and Young Girl with, let’s be real, its slightly questionable narrative in 2024.

Born To Be Free’s upbeat musical backdrop is contradicted by the somewhat sombre lyrical narrative, discussing Levi’s own experience of institutional racism. Slave Trade compounds this, discussing the historical context, at times in graphically-accurate detail, of slavery and colonialism – putting himself in the shoes of someone the British kidnapped from Africa and the ramifications of this horror today.

By Any Means seems pertinent at present, with its narrative around rebellion against the current system (nodding to the historical rebellions against the slave trade). White Squall is a brilliant take-down of the system and its proponents, while Frozen Heart is a plea to people of badmind to change their ways or face the consequences.

Levi discusses faith throughout, as well. Strive With Me is effectively a Reggae-based prayer to Jah to help one stay strong and be able to continue the fight in the face of adversity. Top Of The Moon is almost an analogy for spiritual elevation; rising above Babylon’s madness to reach a higher plain.

There are lighter, more positive tracks as well: Smile Africa sings praises to the Motherland, while H.I.M. does the same for Selassie and One Life tells you to do the same but for your own life. The bruk out is represented across Red Carpet’s call to party and Change Your Mind, the latter being a stand-out cut.

However, it’s Fine Tooth Comb that particularly impresses. It is a lovely, memory-inspired track – with Levi on the face of it singing about his father combing his hair out as a child, ready to be put into dreadlocks - but actually discussing Black pride; a fitting metaphor for the entire album.

Overall, Born To Be Free is a classy and thought-provoking body of work from Levi and Penthouse Records. Musically competent, Levi is a sublime vocalist – but also an excellent and at times moving lyricist, and these two things combined elevate the album to something special.

Release details

  • Exco Levi - Born To Be Free
  • Exco Levi - Born To Be Free

Exco Levi - Born To Be Free

DIGITAL RELEASE [Penthouse Records]

Release date: 03/01/2024


01. Born To Be Free
02. Slave Trade
03. By Any Means
04. Smile Africa
05. H.I.M.
06. One Life
07. White Squall
08. Fine Tooth Comb
09. Frozen Heart
10. Strive With Me
11. That's What She Loves feat. Duane Stephenson
12. Top Of The Moon
13. Young Girl
14. Red Carpet
15. Change Your Mind feat. Charly Black & SpexDaBoss