Not Quite His Father's Reggae

Damian Marley adds a hip-hop sensibility to his father's Jamaican pop. Damian's CD is `Welcome to Jamrock,' and he comes to Sonar on Monday.

December 01, 2005|By RASHOD D. OLLISON | RASHOD D. OLLISON,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

The Jamaica he takes us through isn't the one seen in travel brochures and TV commercials - a golden paradise of smiling natives, fun beaches and crystal-blue water. In the lilting, hip-hop-suffused title track of Welcome to Jamrock, the latest album by Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley, the reggae star exposes the raggedy edges and warped mentality of ghetto life on the island.

A ghetto education's basic / And most of the youths dem waste it / And when dem waste it, that's when dem tek the guns replace it

A radio and club smash this summer, "Welcome to Jamrock" is perhaps one of the more gripping songs to come out of the genre in years. The youngest son of legend Bob Marley extends the tradition of revelatory reggae.

"It's life in general as I see happening," says the artist, 27, who's calling from a tour stop in Eugene, Ore. Marley appears at Sonar Lounge on Monday night. "The song speaks deep to the streets. It isn't just about Jamaica alone. The crime and drugs, the killings are everywhere."

Marley's new album, his third one, bristles with substantive songs of political uplift and romantic love. Working with his older half-brother Stephen, Marley imbues the classic roots-reggae sound with a hip-hop sensibility. Beats boom, and scratchy samples peak in and out of the mix on the 14-track set. Ace rhyme slingers Nas and Black Thought of the Roots, even reality TV show star and former R&B bad boy Bobby Brown, make guest appearances.

Live instrumentation is often folded into the synthetic arrangements, warming the hard-hitting beats. The overall sound is well-balanced, modern and accessible. Welcome to Jamrock is a bolder, if slightly more commercial, step above its predecessor, 2001's Grammy-winning Halfway Tree.

"I think it expresses a different time in my life," Marley says of the album. "These are 14 different songs written from different perspectives in my life. Practice makes perfect, and there was more thought put in the sound of the record this time."

Marley, whose mother is jazz singer and Miss World 1976 Cindy Breakspeare, was 2 years old when his father died in 1981. But he says his pop's musical legacy has been an essential part of his life. At 13, the young Marley formed his first band, The Shepards, which also featured the son of Third World's Cat Coore and the daughter of Freddie McGregor. After two years, Marley went solo, releasing Mr. Marley in 1996 to little notice. The follow-up, Halfway Tree, appeared in stores on an unfortunate date: Sept. 11, 2001. Although the record didn't produce a major hit, it managed to garner critical acclaim and a Grammy for best reggae album.

Now with Welcome to Jamrock, Marley has broken into the mainstream with the smartly arranged, vividly written title track, which eschews the usual sunniness (and inanity) of such crossover reggae stars as Shaggy and Sean Paul. The album definitely delivers on the promise of the single.

Although he's not the penetratingly soulful vocalist his father was, Marley is smooth and charismatic. He rides the grooves like a rapper. "The Master Has Come Back," a sterling R&B-flavored track on Welcome to Jamrock, is a fine example of this.

"I'm a big fan of hip-hop and R&B," Marley says. "I like the rap that speaks to the streets. It's not watered down, you know."

Stirring hip-hop and soul into his potent reggae stew, Marley says he's more focused on using his music to raise consciousness, to highlight the truth as he sees it.

"It's building to the legacy," he says. "I'm a Rasta, so it's all about building. I have a legacy to be proud of."

See Damian Marley at Sonar Lounge, 407 E. Saratoga St., Monday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting ticketmaster.com.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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