The intro to Tanya Stephens' latest album asks this question: "At this stage in my life/I really don't care if I have the approval of a few of my peers/I diverted for a little while/And the calls from my so-called friends stopped/I guess they thought I lost it/'Cause if they don't hear me/Then I must have flopped, right?"
The transition she describes took place from 1999 until 2002. During this period, the Jamaican-born Stephens lived in Gnesta, 45 minutes outside of Stockholm. "I got a record deal with Warner Sweden, and their take on recording was that the artist who is more available is the one who gets the most attention from the company," she says. "I moved there with my daughter and niece, who is like a second daughter to me, and recorded the  album Sintoxicated."
Speaking in her thick, raspy accent, she is blunt about her Swedish hiatus. "I used to be one of those real closed-minded Jamaican people who felt that if anything that didn't fit into my idea of what I am and what everyone around me should be, I should condemn it," she reflects. "I'm really appreciative that I got a chance to move outside of my little circle and realize that the world is much bigger than Jamaica."
Tanya Stephens, Beres Hammond, Elephant Man, Shaggy, Sanchez, T.O.K., and Ricard "Rik Rok" Ducent
Bayfront Park (301 N. Biscayne Blvd., Miami)
Sunday, May 30. VP Records' 25th-anniversary celebration. Starts at noon. Call 305-658-7550.
Until 1999, Tanya's two releases, Too Hype and Ruff Rider, were laden with some very tough dancehall riddims and beats. When she first began singing in 1990, her attempt at "lover's rock" didn't go far. So she spiced up her lyrics with a sure-fire attention-getter: sex. She developed a reputation as a no-bullshit, gotta-get-mine diva. Anything -- from what she looks for in a man to her reasons for masturbation -- was fair game. Though she claims not to be a feminist, her first song to send a buzz through the industry was the 1995 single "Yuh Nuh Ready Fi Dis Yet," a verbal smackdown of a man who tries to downplay her feminine prowess. "Big Ninja Bike" from 1998's Ruff Rider offers this helpful advice to a potential conquest: "Bounce me whole night/pan you divan/Gee me de right slam/'Cause da gal ya no care." Other sexually charged songs followed, launching her into the same spotlight as raunchy dancehall diva Lady Saw.
Born in the parish of St. Mary in Jamaica, the petite singer draws her gritty lyrics from real life. "I don't write fiction," she says. "Apparently, a lot of people go through similar stuff, and I'm grateful for that. It means that I'm not so special. No one wants to be so special that it's just them who have those bad experiences. You know how misery loves company."
Last year, her reggae single "It's a Pity" dealt with the poignant side of an illicit affair ("You already have a wife/An mi done have a man in a mi life"). So, she doesn't write fiction, huh? "I really didn't know that so many people out there have those promiscuous thoughts," she laughs. "[The song] is a case of seeing a man that she likes, and her conscience clicks in. Boy, I hate it when that happens. But I know that I can't really do anything -- I have my man already." Her response neither confirms nor denies her indiscretions but does switch from she to me.
Stephens describes her latest album, Gangsta Blues, as her version of blues. Released on her own Tarantula Records label and heavily promoted by VP Records, it includes a duet with Wyclef Jean called "This Is Love" and another collaboration with reggae DJ Spragga Benz. The sequel to "It's a Pity" is a ditty called "Little White Lie," in which Stephens schools the listener on the Jamaican phrase of giving a man a "jacket" -- when a woman has a child by one man and tells another man it belongs to him. The acoustic "What a Day" adds her seldom-heard introspective side to the mix, while "Good Ride" and "We a Lead" deliver the naughty Tanya, and the "Damn" interlude track elaborates on the experience of the "ten-second man."
The album intro closes with this answer to her opening question: "Hopefully this will be the last time they compare me to another female/To be considered half as good as a man/A woman has to work twice as hard/And I work 100 times as hard/And they still give me halfhearted regard."
"Right now, I consider myself to be a neutral artist without the emphasis on being female or male," Stephens sums up. "Back home, they still call me 'the ladies' defender' because a lot of women relate to my lyrics. I'm not sure if my shoulders are big enough to carry that title, but I wear it with pride. The outspoken gangsta in me won't be silenced."
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