When I roll into Sean Paul’s New York City hotel suite just before 2 p.m. on a Sunday, the Jamaican reggae and dancehall singer walks into the room accompanied by his manager, a bodyguard and the sweet smell of herb. Accordingly, I suggest that he spark up to take the tension off a midafternoon celebrity interview.
Even if you don’t think of yourself as a dancehall or reggae fan, you’ve definitely heard at least one of Sean Paul’s songs: There’s “Baby Boy” with BeyoncÃ©, “Gimme the Light,” “We Be Burnin” and “Temperature.” These jams got serious play the last few years and garnered Sean Paul nominations at the 2006 Billboard Music Awards for Male Artist of the Year, Rap Artist of the Year, Hot 100 Single of the Year and Pop Single of the Year. That year, Sean Paul beat Kanye West and Nick Lachey and won an American Music Award for his collaboration with Keyshia Cole, "Give It Up To Me.” (Yeah, that was back when Nick Lachey actually did something.)
Milliseconds into the interview, Sean Paul whips out an expertly rolled spliff–packed with New York Diesel–from behind his ear. Smoking weed isn’t really a big deal for the singer. "For me it’s about a good feeling and feeling like I can get anything achieved. I don’t get in the doldrums. I concentrate more. For me, it’s like The Secret, the book," he says.
“My father smoked weed around me as a kid and I viewed it as something that grownups did," Sean Paul explains. "My mother said: â€˜See this thing that we smoke? You don’t smoke it. It’s for adults. Don’t do it.’ It was the same to me as not being able to drink or drive a car when I was little. I was too young and had to wait my turn. I didn’t know it was illegal. I just knew adults did certain things kids shouldn’t do. But I always liked the way weed smelled. Like the way people like how coffee smells,” he says.
Unfortunately for the musician, most of the world doesn’t think of pot as innocuous a drug as java. Back in August, the singer was arrested for possession in Sweden along with 200 other people. He was performing at the Uppsala Reggae Festival and was caught smoking weed in front of an undercover police officer. (Only the lamest undercover cops work a reggae festival. Talk about buzzkill.)
But don’t be fooled by Sean Paul’s hip-hop lifestyle and overall swagger—he’s probably one of the sweetest (and most incongruous) stars I’ve ever met. The middle class Jamaican was born in the capital city of Kingston to a family of swimmers. That’s right–long before he was expanding his lungs and his mind in the recording studio, Sean Paul was using his pipes for an entirely different purpose: training to be an Olympic swimmer. “I was up at 5 a.m. for years, swimming twice a day and weight training every day, and then smoking and drinking on the weekends,” he says. Sean Paul also tells me that he studied hotel management in college before dropping out, and even worked for a hot second as a bank teller. “I was really fast at counting money,” he laughs.
In some ways, Sean Paul is every mother’s dream: A nice, Jewish boy (“I have Jewish blood from my father, which means, yeah, I got Jewish blood”) from a good family–he was raised in the part of Kingston where kids grow up to be doctors, lawyers and politicians). But he’s also got that edge that makes the ladies go wild— “I was the black sheep. I was seen as wild and not knowing what my future will be about. Things are set up for you where I am from. But I’m the fence dude. I can see from both sides,” he says.
And, on top of all this talent and charisma, Sean Paul is one prolific artist. At the end of summer 2009, his fourth album drops. “It’s a futuristic look at dancehall,” he says taking a long drag. “Less 8-track sound and more computer and technology. It’s not going to be [so] overproduced [that] we are killing the hell out of the original sound either. We’re not like Britney Spears. We left my voice alone and the other tracks are more like surround sound. It’s less linear and more broader and wider – better technology. It’s still reggae and dancehall but its not going to sound like your daddy or granddaddy’s reggae or dancehall.”
But just because his sound is fresh doesn’t mean his lyrics are–Sean Paul is pretty adamant about the fact that he doesn’t use “harsh, disgusting language.” We both can’t help but giggle a little after he follows up this assertion with: “So â€˜Give It Up To Me’ is about, yeah, give me some pussy. But it’s about saying it with tact,” adds the bachelor. “It’s not wilin’ out. It can play on the radio. I’m thinking about my son when I am writing this too, you know.”
It must be some combination of his melodic Jamaican accent, his slow, easy smile and that plume of New York Diesel lingering between us, because the singer’s candor has now hooked me more than his catchy choruses. While I don’t "give it up to" him, I do leave Sean Paul’s suite buzzing–maybe from the secondhand smoke.