We review every track on one of the most anticipated albums in bhangra history…
B21’s 12B is the most anticipated album in the history of Bhangra music. After delivering the classic sophomore album By Public Demand back in 1998, B21 were never quite able to create a proper third album. There was Made in England and Long Overdue, but those releases featured just a handful of new songs and remixes. Then, in 2002, Jassi Sidhu controversially left the band to pursue a successful solo career, which saw the release of four albums and hit songs like “Ama Ni Ama,” “Puth Jatt Da,” “Ki Kehne” and “Nai Reesa.” During this time, Bhota Jagpal decided to hit the live circuit as a keyboardist and Bally Jagpal stayed relatively quiet, but there was always this promise of another album. But after years of promises, B21’s legions of fans began to lose hope as 12B turned into the Punjabi equivalent of Smile, Chinese Democracy and Detox. However, the unthinkable happened on June 19, 2014 when B21 finally dropped 12B after over a decade of delays.
Although fans might be skeptical of a B21 album without the presence of Jassi Sidhu, one must realize that this is the return of Bhota and Bally Jagpal, two of the architects of that golden era of 90s Bhangra. Bhota masterminded the soundscape on the The Safri Boys’ Bomb the Tumbi and Bally Jagpal produced Dark & Dangerous. Those are two of the greatest Bhangra albums of all time. Both are filler-free and none of them featured the vocals of Jassi Sidhu. Sidhu’s voice became iconic through B21, but the Jagpals have created anthems for Dippa Dosanjh, Balwinder Safri, Sardara Gill, Ranjit Mani, Amar Arshi and Shazia Manzoor, which proves that the Jagpals don’t need Jassi Sidhu to deliver hits. Sidhu is a solid vocalist and his tenure with B21 was a magical period in Bhangra, but suggesting that the Jagpals are incapable of delivering quality without his vocals is pure idiocy. And with 12B, Bhota and Bally prove that one should always have faith in the Jagpals.
Rather than starting the highly anticipated album off with a Bhangra anthem like they did on The Sound of B21 and By Public Demand, the Jagpals decide to embrace the current trend of giving studio time to rappers, which is usually a recipe for disaster. Amateur emceeing is one of the primary culprits in the gradual decline of Bhangra music. Materialistic lyrics and infantile rhyming schemes plague UK Bhangra, but, occasionally, rapping works on a Punjabi track. Young Fateh, who has honed his craft over the years through many high profile appearances on Dr. Zeus productions, provides a first class introduction to 12B on the R&B mix of “Dil Tharkeh” by glorifying the Jagpals and reacquainting listeners with B21’s discography and legacy. Although the lyrics condone infidelity and make use of the pejorative term “midget,” Fateh’s witty rhymes are refreshing to hear after the recent bombardment of lacklustre emcee performances in Punjabi music. Bhota Jagpal’s beat, which is heavily inspired by a western hit of yesteryear, is layered with the flute, mandolin and sarangi for a traditional, yet current feel. The production complements Fateh’s flow and juxtaposes it with the vocal harmony of Bhota Jagpal and Baljinder Bilga, who was responsible for the forgotten album Fully Loaded several years ago.
The covers start flooding in with the outstanding “Doli Vichon Heer,” which features Bally Jagpal modifying and reciting some lines from Jay-Z’s “Song Cry,” as Bhota delivers his first solo vocal on a B21 track. Bhota isn’t the most versatile vocalist, but he’s competent and aware of his limitations; he never once starts attempting vocal projections that he’s incapable of performing. When pressed for significant projections, Bhota relies on computerized vocals, resulting in a cool, soulful effect on “Kar Yaad Kureh.” “Doli Vichon Heer” features a barely noticeable cameo from Sardool Sikander. Sounding like a sample rather than a live feature, the few lines from the highly respected vocalist precede Bhota Jagpal, who fuses the minimal Sikander contribution into the composition to accentuate the melancholy of the Heer/Ranjha tragedy. Bhota’s plaintive delivery sufficiently captures the longing of Heer over a progressive production, featuring traditional instrumentation from Jalandhar’s Sur Studio.
Originally played on Adil Ray’s program on the BBC Asian Network, “Mirza” is a cover of a classic Kuldeep Manak tune from the 1980 album Maa Hundi Aa Maa. The earlier version of this particular track started with a jab at Jassi Sidhu, but rather than dwelling on the breakup and staining a tribute to Kuldeep Manak, Bhota and Bally come up with a far better intro. Starting off with scratches, the gunshot riddled beat, featuring an unintelligible Cheshire Cat rap and guitar work from Jim Landsbury, compensates for the fact that Bally Jagpal is unable to replicate the poignancy of Kuldeep Manak’s original vocal, which is nearly impossible for all singers. And speaking of Manak’s original vocal, B21 samples it and Jagmohan Kaur’s Mirza/Sahiban kali on the inferior tribute mix of “Mirza.”
The conformist Miss Pooja collaboration is an above-average affair for her overwhelming list of features, but it’s nothing revolutionary. The production, which recycles elements of B21’s “Jawani,” features a coordinated interplay between the flute and algozey from Anil Banger, resulting in a deft woodwind section, but the artists have unfortunately decided to cover Surinder Kaur’s “Agg Paaniya Nu.” Surinder Kaur is a very difficult artist to cover. In fact, redoing Surinder Kaur tunes should be considered a sin in Punjabi music because the Padma Shri recipient is widely known as the greatest female Punjabi vocalist of all time and is probably the only singer who recorded a Kuldeep Manak cover that surpassed the original. Miss Pooja might be an extremely talented singer, but she simply doesn’t have the unique and expressive qualities of Surinder Kaur’s majestic voice. And “Agg Paaniya Nu” is standard folk fodder, which results in monotony. A Pooja vocal is expensive, so B21 should have pressed her for hekhs or a cover of something unconventional and out of her comfort zone like Kuldeep Manak’s “Udham Singh,” notably covered by Avtar Maniac on Extreme. Although experimental, a cover of this nature would have elevated the Pooja feature, making it stand out amongst her endless list of collaborations.
“Singapore Airline Di” is a fantastic duet from Shazia Manzoor and Bally Jagpal. Bally’s rustic vocal meshes perfectly with Manzoor, who has to be one the Jagpals’ most reliable and versatile singers with gems like “Aja Sohneya,” “Viah Kar Va Ke” and her various contributions to 12B. Bhota’s arrangement features some dreamy ad-libs from Sai Priya, a sample of The Mohawks’ “The Champ” and the oft-used “hit it” from the iconic “La Di Da Di.” The best use of sampling is the impeccable placement of Juggy D’s trademark and elongated bruah as Bally concludes his verses and the percussion comes in. The abovementioned samples and ad-libs and Lalita Jnagal’s airport announcements, Paul Sampson’s guitar work, Sur Studio’s contributions and the humorous interaction between Bally and Shazia make “Singapore Airline Di” an exceptional track.
“Kala Jora Pa” is yet another remake of the popular Pakistani folk song, which has been covered on numerous occasions over the years. Bhota Jagpal has worked magic on Pakistani folk before with the 1991 cover of Ashiq Jatt’s “Paar Linghade” on Legends. But “Kala Jora Pa” fails to recreate the success of that Safri Boys masterpiece. It might have worked with a Shazia Manzoor vocal over a mellow production, but that would have been conforming to the other remakes that currently exist. The 12B incarnation of “Kala Jora Pa” features a competent vocal performance from Baljinder Bilga, but it’s wasted on a tired remake, featuring repetitive percussion. The addition of the dhad and tumbi is nice, though.
After a forgettable remake, B21 decide to tackle a Amar Singh Chamkila masterpiece. Originally released in 1987, “Kar Yaad Kureh” is one of Charanjit Ahuja’s finest productions and, arguably, Chamkila’s greatest song and vocal performance. Although Chamkila was a limited vocalist, his passionate delivery captured the wounded soul of the song’s narrator. On B21’s version of “Kar Yaad Kureh,” the track goes through a shape-shifting transmogrification; it no longer sounds like a tragic rural love story and Charanjit Ahuja’s original production choices are completely abolished. Borrowing the same elements of Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” found on Bally Jagpal’s “Pehli Waar,” and relying on an exquisite congruence between the piano and flute, Bhota recaptures the passion of Chamkila’s original vocal, but places an emphasis on auto-tune, which makes him sound like a jilted android rather than a farmer. The futuristic effect makes the cover admirable and distinct, but B21 fails to credit the original lyricist Gill Surjit, who wrote this moving piece for Sharbat Wangoo Ghut Bhar Lan.
“Dance with Me” is one of the album’s lesser moments. The Jagpals let a quality production get colored by irredeemably kitschy lyrics that blend Punjabi and English. Although the song is questionable, it is slightly catchy and might find an audience. After the misstep of “Dance with Me,” B21 decide to cover songs from the Amitabh Bachchan films Aaj Ka Arjun and Suhaag. “Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi” which originally appeared in the 1979 Manmohan Desai film Suhaag is one of the weakest moments on the album because the singer Gurmeet Singh doesn’t come anywhere close to matching the original Mohammed Rafi and Shailendra Singh vocals. And when B21 awkwardly transitions the song into “Tujh Mein Rabh Dikhta Hai” from the film Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, Singh fails to recreate the ethereal vocal of Roop Kumar Rathod’s original rendition. Shazia Manzoor is fine covering Asha Bhosle’s part, though. Whilst “Rab Ne Bana De Jodi” disappoints, “Neendara” is brilliant. Shazia Manzoor’s beautiful vocals, Paul Sampson’s guitar intro and Bally Jagpal’s backing vocals of “Gori Hain Kalaiyan” come together to create a gem.
As mentioned earlier, the tribute mix of “Mirza” is inferior to the original, but the stripped down and aggressive beat and the sampling of Manak’s vocal and Charanjit Ahuja’s mandolin piece from the original “Mirza Yaar Bulaonda Tera” make for a worthwhile track. Worth mentioning is that the melody from the classic Kuldeep Manak tune also laid the foundation for Bally Jagpal’s flagship track “Ranjha” many years ago. The desi mix of “Dil Tharkeh,” which should have started the album with its lengthy introduction, sees B21 give the Bhangra treatment to the album opener. Recycling tumbi melodies and sound effects from “Darshan,” this track is the closest 12B comes to encapsulating the classic B21 sound that defined the youths of so many Punjabis. The overwhelming percussion, the prominent use of the sarangi and vocal harmony between Bhota and Baljinder Bilga prove that the Jagpals are still capable of creating potential dance floor anthems.
B21’s 12B is bound to polarize listeners and incite conversations and complaints about the absence of Jassi Sidhu, the vocals, the overreliance on covers, the reasoning behind the delays and the reality that 12B isn’t the second coming of By Public Demand. This sort of aura rarely surrounds a Bhangra album, but the B21 brand demands attention. And while there will be opponents of 12B, there is no denying the fact that the Jagpals actually refused to succumb to the insurmountable pressure of naysayers, who counted them out after the loss of their lead singer. The simple fact that this album was released is an admirable feat.
12B clocks in at 20 minutes over The Sound of B21 and By Public Demand, making it B21’s most ambitious and epic effort yet. Bhota’s lush arrangements are devoted to folk tales; covers of Kuldeep Manak and Amar Singh Chamkila tracks; Miss Pooja features; authentic Bhangra; Pakistani folk; Bollywood remakes; Punjabi duets and Hip-Hop. B21’s previous albums lacked the musical and lyrical depth of 12B. And the fact that the Jagpals decided to perform vocals themselves rather than finding a replacement for Jassi Sidhu is a courageous move that actually pays off. After being showered with controversy and doubt for over a decade, B21 managed to persevere and release a product that actually measures up to their beloved discography and shows artistic growth. As mentioned earlier, 12B proves that one should always have faith in the Jagpals.
We give the album 4 out of 5
B21’s 12B is out now on Moviebox, click here to buy