After Atlantic: An Independent Sean Paul Moves Forward

Patrick Hoelck
Sean Paul

Throughout his scorching 90-minute set aboard the inaugural Welcome to Jamrock Reggae cruise (October 20-25), a sweat soaked Sean Paul put down some impressive dance moves as he tore through his repertoire of EDM-influenced tracks, pop-reggae hits and core dancehall singles. In the latter category, "Riot", Sean's collaboration with the cruise's host Damian Marley, featured on Sean's most recent album Full Frequency, drove an already enthusiastic audience into a near frenzy, particularly when Marley joined him onstage to trade blistering rhymes during the song.

"Damian and I talked about collaborating long before we recorded 'Riot,'" Sean explained to Billboard inside the Norwegian Pearl cruise liner's Star Bar. "We wanted our collaboration to be something different but true to our roots; we tried other songs but 'Riot' was the shit; we were like, yeah, we found it."

Since the release of his debut album Stage One 14 years ago for Queens, NY-based reggae label VP Records (with whom he signed in 1999) the Kingston, Jamaica born DJ (Jamaican rapper) has repeatedly found the right song. Back then, Sean made history as the first dancehall act to have two songs ("Deport Dem" and "Hot Gal Today") in simultaneous rotation on New York's influential hip-hop station WQHT (Hot 97).

This year Sean Paul Henriques, now 41, was featured on two RIAA-certified platinum singles: Reggaeton artist Farruko's sultry "Passion Whine" and crooner Enrique Iglesias' joyous "Bailando." Both songs reached several Billboard Latin charts with "Bailando" peaking at no. 12 on the Hot 100 and setting a record after 27 weeks atop the Hot Latin Songs chart as that tally's longest running no. 1. 

"Passion Whine" and "Bailando" have restored Paul's superstar stature in Spanish speaking markets, where he has maintained a solid following since the early '00s. His resurgent popularity, however, is contrasted by the sluggish sales of his most recent albums and dismissal from Atlantic Records earlier this year. Sean signed to Atlantic in 2002 through a joint distribution deal with VP following the crossover success of Gimme De Light (originally released on VP's annual Reggae Gold compilation), which peaked at no. 4 on the Hot 100. Sean's Atlantic/VP debut album Dutty Rock moved 65,000 units in its first week and spawned four additional top 15 hits including "Like Glue" (no. 13) and "Get Busy" (no. 1) each characterized by Sean's chanted patois flow over unadulterated dancehall rhythms or riddims. "Dutty Rock" won the best reggae album Grammy Award in 2004 and reignited global interest in dancehall reggae, following the massive breakthrough of Shabba Ranks in the early ‘90s and Shaggy in the mid-90s/early ‘00s and went on to sell more than six million copies worldwide.

Sean's 2005 album The Trinity moved 107,000 units in its debut week, the biggest sales week for a reggae artist in SoundScan history. However the opening week numbers in the U.S. for Sean's subsequent albums reflect the industry's continually plummeting sales arc. Imperial Blaze, released in 2009 scanned just under 30,000 units but debuted atop the Rap Album and Reggae Album Charts and at no. 12 on the Top 200. Diminished numbers accompanied the release of Tomahawk Technique in January 2012, which moved just 1,200 units, although it fared better in several European markets on the strength of the EDM influenced singles "Got 2 Luv U" featuring Alexis Jordan and "She Doesn't Mind". Full Frequency scanned 2,160 copies but nonetheless premiered atop the Reggae Album chart; to date it has sold slightly more than 5,000 copies in the U.S.

Dwindling sales and an unwillingness to sign a 360 deal, Sean says, are the reasons for his dismissal from Atlantic. "Every year that we renegotiated the contract, they offered a 360 deal and if I had said yes, I would probably still be there, at least for this year. In business meetings they would say we are losing off of this dude because we are only selling his records, we want to sell his shit too! Because I tour a lot, that would have been a lucrative deal for them."

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Managed by David Sonenberg and William Derella of Das Communications since 2011, Sean has performed in 112 countries, breaking new ground for reggae and dancehall in several nations such as Kazakhstan, where he performed in June, with additional debuts in far-flung destinations planned for 2015. "Sean returns to Australia (November 14-19) and after that we will focus on our strongest markets including South America and other Spanish speaking territories and Southeast Asia; reaching China for the first time is a priority, and we want to maintain our strength throughout Europe and North America," comments Jerome Hamilton of Kingston's Headline Entertainment who handle Sean's bookings working alongside Scott Thomas at X-RAY touring who handles Sean's European and UK dates. 

Commenting on Sean's dismissal from Atlantic following his 12 year association with the label, Atlantic Chairman/CEO Craig Kallman, who signed Sean in 2002, told Billboard in a statement: "Sean is a transformational figure in reggae and a pioneer in bringing dancehall music to the global mainstream. Since he joined the Atlantic family he has made a series of hugely influential records and I know he will continue to make brilliant music for many years to come. We wish him all the best as he begins a new chapter of his phenomenal career."

Sean has since negotiated a release from his VP Records contract but may work with the label for distribution of his productions for his digital imprint Dutty Rock Productions, including the forthcoming Full Speed riddim. By utilizing various social media platforms that didn't exist when he signed to Atlantic, Sean will take control of when his music is released and how we would like it to sound.

"I am happy to be off of a label because I don't want someone who at this point is way younger than me, has never written a song, performed on a stage or produced a riddim track, telling me they aren't feeling my song so try again," Sean concluded. "It is better that I feel what I want to release; if the public doesn't want it, at least I know I put my best into it."