This may be hard for some people to believe, but there was a time when MTV did not feature a Lubavitch Hasid in regular rotation.
In just three short years, Matisyahu, also known as the Hasidic reggae superstar, has become a veritable phenomenon of Jewish and American pop culture. In his wake he has left sold-out venues across the country, his decidedly biblical name emblazoned across music bible Rolling Stone magazine, and the word “Moshiach” coming out of radios nationwide with the kind of frequency once limited to the smallest enclaves of religious life. Discovered as part of a line-up of JDub Records, a nonprofit label featuring hip Jewish music, Matisyahu was soon picked up by Sony, one of the most important mainstream labels in the industry. Although Matisyahu never marketed himself as a mere novelty act, whether he has the ability to maintain his relationship with mainstream audiences remains an open question.
Beginning this week, there will be an answer.
On Tuesday, Sony released “Youth,” Matisyahu’s third album, setting up the coming weeks as a make-or-break period for the singer, as listeners decide whether there’s more to him than the decidedly unexpected sight of a Hasid singing Rastafarian music.
Initial indicators look good. In advance of the album’s release, clips were being played during every break on MTV, “Youth” was featured on the front page of record label Sony’s Web site, and Matisyahu had received glowing reviews in a number of newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and the New York Post. The album is likely to open with strong sales, according to Rolling Stone associate editor Evan Serpick. He said it was “really likely” that the album would debut in the top 15 or 20, noting that Matisyahu still can rely to some degree on his being a novelty: “People are still learning about him for the first time… [“Youth”] is going to be the first exposure for still lots of people and I think the novelty” will still help sales.
Of course, not everyone agrees. Rolling Stone’s own reviewer, Peter Relic, opined that “[w]hile ‘Youth’ is certainly worth a listen, the most exceptional thing about Matisyahu remains the most circumstantial.”
But many more industry observers pointedly disagree. “It’s too real to be novelty,” radio executive Bruce Warren told Billboard.
A recording circulating on the Internet of the singer chanting “Yechi” mid-song has further complicated Matisyahu’s reception within the Jewish community. The chant — which translates to “Long live our master, teacher and rebbe, King Messiah, forever and ever” — is used by a fringe group of Lubavitch Jews who believe that their long-dead leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, either never died or will be resurrected and will reveal himself as the messiah.
Among the Orthodox Jews who propelled him to success during his initial move, some disillusionment has started to set in. A number of Orthodox bloggers have been asking the classic question, “Is this good for the Jews?” and in typical response to prominent Orthodox Jews, more and more are responding in the negative. Blogger Life of Rubin responded to the track by writing: “I have only one word to describe this new Matisyahu development. Uch.” Nevertheless, in an indication of how little even the disappointed Orthodox might choose to care, the next day the blogger posted a reminder to catch several upcoming television appearances for the singer.