Damian Marley, ‘Welcome to Jamrock’ (Tuff Gong/Ghetto Youth/Universal)
Welcome to Jamrock may be the best album any son of Bob Marley has ever made. Yet it labors under an almost unbearable burden — his father’s massive legacy. How does one break from a tradition when it’s part of the family inheritance?
The record opens with an outsized spectacle. A Rastafarian royal drum booms, Bunny Wailer, Haile Selassie, and Marcus Garvey issue urgent calls, and Wagnerian strings blast while the 27-year-old Marley evokes his own generation’s uprising: “Searching for the sign, and the sign is us / Searching for the truth, all you find is us.” The inescapable title track is built from an Ini Kamoze/Sly and Robbie riddim made after Bob’s death, and it succinctly revisits the themes of Damian’s 1999 breakthrough, “More Justice”: “To see the sufferation sick me / Dem suit nuh fit me.” Unlike his tenement-yard-raised father, the youngest Marley is an Uptown rebel with sympathies for the downtrodden, a Che Guevara for a Viacom world if he wants to be.
Or perhaps he is just the next global pop hero, a phenomenon his father made possible. Damian continues to re-version the Wailers’ catalog with half-brother Stephen on “Move!,” a surprisingly solid update of “Exodus,” and the samba-ized “Pimpa’s Paradise.” He has other models, too. The ska-flavored “All Night” nods to crossover king Shaggy. With Eek-A-Mouse and Bounty Killer aboard, “Khaki Suit” rewinds late-’70s/early-’80s Channel One dancehall. In the bloodline-roots style of the Melody Makers or Morgan Heritage, “We’re Gonna Make It” throws a socially conscious party — and just in time, considering that Jamaica’s fickle winds are again favoring the tradition of I Wayne over Elephant Man. But the neo-ragga pop of “Hey Girl” cools Damian’s characteristic exuberance into the bland efficiency of a Rihanna or Rupee.
In a 21st-century world of reggae no longer dominated by one voice, versatility may be a virtue. But when Nas effortlessly steals “Road to Zion,” it’s clear that Damian doesn’t yet possess his father’s force of personality. He sounds more in his element on “There for You,” a sweet, understated affirmation of familial love. Welcome to Jamrock does not herald a new generation’s Athenian arrival. Yet, only from a Marley might we expect such an achievement, when a very good album is enough.
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