There is something about the combination of Sting and Shaggy that seems inherently ludicrous: Mr Boombastic Loverman meets Tantric Sex God in a pop/reggae pile up. These two swaggering old mononymous male stars seem to belong to different corners of the musical universe. Sting, 66, is rock royalty – a virtuoso musician and supreme singer-songwriter with intellectual pretensions, who dabbles in folk, classical and opera. Shaggy, 49, is an ebullient Jamaican toaster with a gritty voice and penchant for fruity innuendo.
At the suggestion of their shared management, Sting agreed to sing a hook on a Shaggy single, the sunny Don’t Make Me Wait, and the pair got on so well that the sessions expanded into a whole album of original songs.
The title track, 44/876 – named after the respective international dialling codes for Britain and Jamaica – commemorates their transatlantic friendship. Over a breezy Caribbean groove, Sting confesses that “the ghost of Bob Marley haunts me to this day”, while Shaggy adds enthusiastic interjections: “Big up the UK, man, yeah, bam bam!”
I’m tempted to say it is surprisingly good – yet why should we be surprised? They are both gifted, charismatic veteran musicians with very distinctive skills. The blend of Sting’s sweet, high tenor and top-tier songwriting with Shaggy’s earthy delivery and rhythmic bounce has an effortless appeal. Sting’s early success with the Police was rooted in reggae and it’s a flow that suits him well, even if his excruciating delivery of the phrase “positive vibration” is some of the dodgiest white patois heard since 10CC’s Dreadlock Holiday.
There’s a hefty dollop of cheese on poppier tracks. The way Sting drops in such lines as “as my good friend Shaggy says” brings to mind Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin hamming it up in Vegas. These kind of guest star combinations have become a feature of modern pop and it’s a nice reminder that the oldies can duet, too. The Shaggy-led Gotta Get Back My Baby is such a fantastically catchy pop song it is a pity it will most likely be relegated to the Radio 2 playlist. If Bruno Mars and Drake recorded the same track, there’d be no escaping it.
Musically, Sting does the heavy lifting, with Shaggy dipping in and out as wing man, proclaiming “biddy bong bong” as the mood takes him. But aside from the more obviously playful pop, there are songs with tough political and emotional edges. The brooding Waiting for the Break of Day puts Sting on a picket line: “When the laws are wicked / You’re forced to disobey.” Just One Lifetime twists Lewis Carroll’s The Walrus and the Carpenter into a nursery rhyme for the apocalypse. While 22nd Street sounds like a lost Gershwin classic given a lover’s rock twist. Crooked Tree is a dark, narrative folk song, with Shaggy voicing a hanging judge, while Sting pleads for clemency. Sad Trombone is a noirish jazz ballad built around audaciously overblown musical similes and metaphors. These songs are strong enough to fit anywhere into Sting’s impressive canon, delivered with an energy and focus that keeps his tendency to over-elaborate at bay.
What I like most is the sense that these two musicians are beyond caring about perceptions, simply determined to have fun. 44/876 is a treat for grown-up fans of either artist. Biddy bong bong!
Sting & Shaggy: 44/876 is out now