The Evolution of Matisyahu

Matisyahu, mid-2000s (top) and 2014 (bottom).

Today, Vanderbilt will host its most esteemed musical visitor, excluding Rites and Quake, since Billy Joel (and Michael Pollack) captivated a sold-out Langford Auditorium almost two years ago.  Matisyahu burst onto the scene in the mid-2000s, delivering a powerful reggae sound laced with traces of rock, hip-hop, and his trademark Judaism-inspired lyrics.  It was a wonder to behold him commanding the stage in traditional Hasidic dress, complete with yarmulke and full beard, while performing in a style that broke the mold of Jewish orthodoxy and tradition.  We listened in awe as “King Without a Crown” leapt to #28 on the Billboard Top 100, easily the highest a song with explicitly Jewish lyrics has ever charted.  We sang along to the powerful “One Day,” which was remixed with new verses by Akon.  And then those of us outside the reggae community allowed Matisyahu to slip from our consciousness.

The Matisyahu who will be walking around West End today looks far different from the Matisyahu of ten years ago.  Gone is the beard, as is the yarmulke–he wears a clean-shaven look topped by a mop of graying hair.  The music, while it still contains Judaism at its heart, has become more secular and more diverse in style, reflecting the man’s continuing spiritual journey.  But Matisyahu is as active as ever, having released his fifth studio album Akeda in June and touring extensively in support of the LP.  In light of this metamorphosis, let’s take a closer look at some of the highlights of Matisyahu’s decade-long career.

2005: “Beatbox”–Live at Stubb’s

After an adolescence in which he rejected his Jewish heritage and embraced the hippie culture, Matthew Miller (as he was then called) underwent a spiritual transformation in the early 2000s and joined the Hasidic sect of Judaism while honing his musical craft; naturally, the two became very much intertwined.  He formed a band around him and released his debut album Shake Off the Dust…Arise in 2004, but it was the following year’s Live at Stubb’s that caught the attention of Epic Records.  Recorded at the namesake venue in Austin, TX, Live at Stubb’s showcased Matisyahu’s frenetic energy, his ability to connect with crowds of all creeds, and his formidable rapping and beatboxing skills, and launched him to fame in reggae circles.  “Beatbox” is a great showcase of the hybrid of reggae and hip-hop that Matisyahu was already formulating at this early stage in his career.

2006: “King Without a Crown”–Youth

After being picked up by Epic Records in 2005, Matisyahu returned to the studio to work on his second LP, Youth, which was released in 2006.  “King Without a Crown” had already been released on both Shake Off the Dust…Arise and Live at Stubb’s; the former version has a traditional, slow reggae feel, while the latter comes much closer to the recording that would make Matisyahu a household name among even casual music fans.  The version of “King Without a Crown” that Matisyahu recorded for Youth features a typical reggae strum pattern in the verses but is underlaid by a beat that more closely resembles the jovial bounce of hip-hop–the fusion of the two genres was already becoming the artist’s trademark.  Matisyahu raps melodically over the verses, speaking of his everlasting love of and devotion to his God and its power to propel him through a life that is sometimes darkened by evil.  The instrumentation on the track is fairly sparse, featuring a single guitar, bass, piano, and drums, but the guitar solo after the second chorus absolutely shreds; then Matisyahu comes back into the fold and finishes things off with a powerful bridge.  The version of “King Without a Crown” released on Youth reached #28 on the Billboard Hot 100 and remains, to this day, Matisyahu’s sole Top 40 hit.

2009: “One Day”–Light

Released three years after YouthLight further expanded Matisyahu’s musical horizons; though he remained a reggae musician at heart, he branched out to include more hip-hop and rock influences.  The most popular song from Light is “One Day,” which gained fame after NBC used it as an unofficial theme song for the 2010 Winter Olympics.  “One Day” keeps the same I-V-vi-IV chord progression (of four-chord song fame) throughout, and has a decidedly pop feel, from the thickly stroked strings to the powerful beat that lacks any of the swing of reggae.  Though it only hit #85 on the Billboard Hot 100, “One Day” may well be Matisyahu’s best-known song, as its chorus is incredibly catchy, anthemic, and hopeful that God will one day deliver the change we all want to see in the world.

2012: “Sunshine”–Spark Seeker

It was in 2011 that Matisyahu posted a photo of his shaven head and face online with the caption “No more Chassidic reggae superstar.”  This radical shift in physical appearance was accompanied by a change in Matisyahu’s lyrical themes; references to God and Jewish lore aren’t as easily found on his 2012 LP Spark Seeker, though they haven’t been eliminated entirely.  More notably, the album is mostly straightforward pop of the ilk that produced “One Day.”  Guitars are nearly absent throughout the tracks, though on “Sunshine”–the nearest Spark Seeker gets to reggae–the typical strum pattern drives the song forward.  Overall, the album is as mainstream as Matisyahu’s catalog gets, though his unique voice keeps the music tied to his reggae roots and likely is the reason none of these songs charted on the Billboard Hot 100.

2014: “Champion”–Akeda

Akeda, in Hebrew, refers to the binding of Isaac, in which Abraham nearly killed his son by God’s will.  The album’s title is no coincidence–here, we see Matisyahu searching, through his lyrics and the eclectic musical styles represented on the album, for the identity that will drive him forward as he continues his move away from his Hasidic past.  The album contains the usual reggae influences but also shows strains of indie rock, acoustic ballads, and contemporary hip-hop.  “Champion” is one of the more reggae-driven tracks on the album and features a percussively sung hook framing typical sung-rap verses and an arching chorus belted out by Matisyahu.

Matisyahu’s musical journey is clearly not over.  At only 35, he has plenty of years left in his career, and the development he has undergone in the past decade is indicative of who he is as an artist: a musician’s musician who constantly pushes his own envelope lyrically and compositionally.  He should be a fascinating lunch guest, and I expect that he will put on an emotional, entertaining show tonight at the Commons.

-Zach Blumenfeld