I’m here to tell you about the riddims of the universe. Or rather, the riddims of Pink Lotion.
Pink Lotion is, to the best of my hasty researching, a compilation of riddims collected and arranged by Philadelphia poet, record/book store proprietor, deejay, and more Mark Francis Johnson. I haven’t read much by Johnson except for a chapbook (Dream of a Like Place, sus, 2013) I recently found available online. If forced to put Johnson’s poetry into a box, I would probably aim for one labeled “Language Experiments/Free-flowing Energy,” or something along those lines. That’s part of what I find so interesting about Pink Lotion: its absence of language.
The word riddim entered my vocabulary a few weeks ago after I had already been listening to Pink Lotion off and on for a month. Here’s what I believe a riddim is: it’s the instrumental track from many Jamaican dancehall and reggae songs. These tracks can be used hundreds of times by various artists and dancehall deejays who would then sing over them, thus supplying the vocals. The word riddims comes from a Jamaican pronunciation of rhythms. I knew none of this the first few times I listened to Pink Lotion, but you don’t have to know it. The information enhanced my experience because it eliminated the frustration of not knowing that gnaws at me whenever I take in anything. I like to know. It would have made me endlessly happy if Johnson included some kind of text with the album. Some sort of liner notes, a brief essay, that explains riddims and his interest in the genre (Before Pink Lotion Johnson released a Memphis Rap compilation called Orange Mound also through Gaus PDF),
Putting my burgeoning knowledge of riddims behind, Pink Lotion itself is filled with feeling. Without vocals, without language signaling feelings, this album allows you to more freely fill in the feeling and emotion behind each song. While listening to the album in the car on our four-hour drive back to central New York, my girlfriend described the album as having a “big, happy beat”; I have yet to think of a more apt way to describe it. The album keeps you alert, it keeps supplying a heartbeat, and it somehow moves through you.
This is an album to write to. It’s like listening to Explosions in the Sky or Godspeed You! Black Emperor. It is telling its own wordless story, and you find yourself trying to capture it while listening. You can try over and over and each time it’ll be something different.
In Pink Lotion, Mark Francis Johnson doesn’t clean up the tracks. There’s a level of grit to these. This gives the album a bit of nostalgia and comfort. It feels old, but not too old. Something we all know. At the same time, for any of us unfamiliar with riddims and dancehall, it’s also going to feel new. You’re going to hear things in there. Suddenly you’ll expect Biggie Smalls to chime in; or, thanks to my childhood of middle school dances, the Backstreet Boys. There’s something in this grime, this static that just feels warm to me.
Pink Lotion is going to stay with me: in the car, on walks, while writing. It’s good to have there. Start with the first track, and if at the end of that you don’t want to let it keep playing, at least gives tracks 4, 10, and 18 (“Scarface,” “8 Ball,” and “Gidgement”) a chance to convince you. These are simply personal favorites and, honestly, probably better discovered while listening to the album straight through. I think the order is essential to a first listen; this allows you to move through the day. You move through nostalgia, surprise, a victory, a parade all while feeling that big, happy beat.
David Wojciechowski lives in Syracuse, NY. He is an editor of the soon-to-be Midnight City Books. His reviews can be found in The Laurel Review, Coldfront, and elsewhere.