Friday, May 27, 2011

'Where They Belong': A Review of "Revelation Part 1: The Root of Life" by Stephen Marley

Normally when we do these things I attempt to draw linguistic laterals from the artist in question to others in order to make my ultimate point before diving into a particular album -- Yet, because of the very quietly unusual nature of the performer in question here today, and that of his family, it’s going to be very difficult to do so, especially in this specific instance. Making Reggae music with a name like ‘Marley’ is, in and of itself, a very odd thing. Akin to very few things in the world - perhaps like playing football with a name like ’Maradona’ or basketball with a name like ‘Jordan’ - it is something which is immediately attention-grabbing to fans of the genre and though we’re only on the second row of names, for the most part, I’m still going to have a very difficult time imagining an era in even the most remote future where that changes. As I’ve said in the past, the progeny of the King of Reggae Music, Robert Nesta Marley, have certainly gone a very far way in making a name for themselves, respectively, but as long as they are making music (and probably doing anything else, for that matter) they’re going to be compared to him in some way. The very strange thing which occurs with them, however, is that - where the patriarch of the family is the quintessential . . . He’s also the patriarch of Reggae music, as a whole - everyone else in the family tends to exist outside of what the music has become. Not only because of the name, but they also tend to go about framing their music through different sources. When is the last time you’ve seen ______ Marley on the _______ Riddim? It just doesn’t happen like that. Instead, they almost always build themselves towards album releases and when they do make other musical appearances, it’s generally well within a very small group of artists and friends. With that being said, however, it doesn’t mean that they couldn’t. I don’t tend to enjoy most of the Marleys output, personally. When I look at both Ziggy (biggup Ziggi) and Julian Marley, they normally make a ‘brand’ of Reggae which is ultimately too Folk-ish for my tastes and I’ve never been big fans of theirs. Ky-Mani has definitely made wonderful music in my opinion (the ”Many More Roads” album is still one of the best albums I’ve ever heard coming from a non-Bob, Marley), but it’s been quite some time. And then there’s Damian Marley. Arguably one of the greatest lyricists in all of Reggae today, Damian is definitely the modern champion of the family in terms of the music and what he does, stylistically, isn’t far from that of his more ‘residential’ peers. Most interestingly, Damian even does his business in a different way than the rest. And normally when you see (or hear) him, the genius which is Stephen Marley isn’t too far away.

“Executive Producer: Stephen Marley”

That is the tag which you’ll find attached to the three studio albums of Damian ‘Jr. Gong’ Marley, ”Mr. Marley”, ”Halfway Tree” and ”Welcome To Jamrock” and it’s also something which has helped Stephen Marley go charging into the next era of music as, musically, he and his youngest brother are musically inseparable to some degree. Also, I believe he served a similar role within the Melody Makers of Ziggy Marley & The Melody Makers fame, making his career truly distinguished amongst an already very distinguishing lot.

Stephen Marley

A few years back Stephen took his recording career to a higher stage and released the very well received "Mind Control" which would earn in the Reggae Grammy in 2008, a status which he would, again, enjoy two years later as an acoustic version of the suddenly very popular project was also subsequently released (and if you count his work with Ziggy and Damian, Stephen Marley now has a truly ridiculous SEVEN Reggae Grammy awards) - Winning the same award two different times with one album. Now, I don’t want to make it all sound as a case of happenstance or luck, Stephen is well talented and one of the most so gifted in Reggae today and when you take all of that into consideration, it really makes his releases very big deals in Reggae music. Therefore, when we look at ”Revelation Part 1: The Root of Life”, we’re looking at, at least on paper, one of the biggest and likely most popular albums of 2011. Besides being the followup to the aforementioned "Mind Control", the album is also a prequel of sorts as, later this year, Stephen is reportedly set to release the second part of this grand concept, ”The Fruit of Life” (and if he pulls that off, there’s almost a 0% chance that BOTH won’t be nominated for a Grammy, and I wouldn’t at all be surprised if it’s a tie, making him the first to win the same damn award twice in the same damn year). I don’t actually know if it’ll all materialize in that timeframe, in Reggae stuff doesn’t always (ever) go as it’s been planned to, but certainly if it does, there’ll be a great deal of eyes, from the Reggae community and outside focused on Stephen Marley this year. The first installment of this ambitious pair of albums is supposed to be the more Reggae-centric of the two, which makes it more to my and your interest. Prior to the album’s release, Marley stoked interest to a fine degree with a few very well received pre-singles and the album behind them is more than capable of carrying the flames and keeping the interest well high as Stephen Marley serves up what is certain to be one of the most spun Reggae pieces of 2011. Let’s take a closer look.

"Mind Control" - 2007

Vocally speaking, Stephen may most resemble his legendary sire out of all of the current Marley singers and, musically speaking, he also engages in a style which one wouldn’t think would be too dissimilar from what Bob would presumably make were he around and performing in 2011. Certainly Nesta would approve of ‘Made In Africa’ which gets us going on the new album from Stephen Marley, ”Revelation Part 1: The Root of Life”. The song is the first of a whopping seven different official combinations on the fourteen track set - This one featuring Hip-Hopper Wale as well as the cast of “Fela!” which is a stage play around the life and times of the legendary Fela Kuti. This song is an excellent one and one which is so wonderfully chosen as an opener because it well sets the tone for the rest of the album, not only in terms of ideology, but also in terms of the actual vibes.

“Educate yourselves of Africa
To liberate yourself, Africa
Keep your heads up high
No more will we cry
Our history that they stole, Africa
Is written in our souls, Africa
Oldest nation this earth
Know just what you’re worth
Ships that sailed to distant places, robbed us of our rights and worth
History says that you’ve betrayed us - talking of the gods you serve
Hear the rumbling in the sky -
Tears that our forefathers cry
And today we’re still in chains
Take the shackles from our minds”

The song is a praising tune for not only the Motherland but for, of course, His Imperial Majesty and as it develops the chanting kicks in and Wale does a very good job as well on what is my second favourite tune on the entire album.

Next is a decent solo track, ‘False Friends’, which doesn’t create too much excitement for me in terms of the message, but sonically speaking it is a very much top notch tune. This is the type of song which kind of fleshes out the ‘body’ of the album, but you know that someone, somewhere is absolutely in love with it (and will likely call me stupid for not liking it). Next we get the first big big guesting artist on ”Revelation” as longtime Marley friend, the great Capleton, joins in on ‘Break Us Apart’. This song is one which kind of coyly takes slap at corruption. Capleton, as you knew he would, brings just a bit more fire, but I left this one wishing that it had lost its obvious cool just a bit more and turned up the flames considerably more - Still a good tune and one of the album’s real highlights, however.

'Tight Ship' w/Damian Marley

The big names continue to roll in throughout the album (as I said, half of the songs are combinations) and to my opinion, its finest moments feature Stephen playing alongside some of the best in the business. Unexpectedly the only name to get two opportunities to step up is Jr. Gong and he well makes the most of both opportunities. Check the later track, ‘Tight Ship’, which sounds as if it came DIRECTLY out of I Grade Records’ studio from Tippy I. It’s just a STRONG (!) composition and the Marleys use it to deliver a very memorable moment and one which I suspect, in some form or another, WILL receive a big time spotlight shone upon it. It may not, however, get as big of a spin as the HUGE previous single, ‘Jah Army’, which also features a mighty riddim as it taps the timeless General Penitentiary track. Not only does a DAMN impressive Damian feature on this tune, but the song is seemingly turned over to an increasingly infamous Buju Banton to . . . vent and he uses the majority of the tune’s second half to do just that - get a few things off of his chest and he does so with some of the finest deejaying he’s done in quite some time.

“Not even one, but several
Of the thing mi buss, a federal
Issue by di Rasta General
Enemies ah meet dem funeral
Wi pick dem individual
Sniper have dem inna dem visual
Babylon time ah reach a minimal
Wi conquer dem subliminal
There is warfare inna physical
An warfare inna spiritual
There is warfare inna digital
An warfare inna chemical”
-Damian Marley on ‘Jah Army’

Dancehall stalwart and another frequent Marley associate (I believe he’s currently touring with Stephen), Spragga Benz steps in on ‘Working Days’. I actually do like this tune (I’ve heard a few negative views of it), but what I don’t like is Spragga’s obviously detached vibes with it. It almost seems as if it was thrown together and someone said that they wanted to get him on a tune on the album and this were the one arbitrarily. He has nothing to do with it just prior to his verse (which is nice) and the sound gets harder for him . . . Then he’s gone and its business as usual, like he was never there, until he comes back and the same thing happens again. When it happens like that it almost sounds like two tunes in one, with the one featuring the Benz the more impressive of the two.

Melanie Fiona

ULTRA CUTIE (DAMN!) Melanie Fiona gets an opportunity to add her spices to another previous single, the very cool ‘No Cigarette’, which definitely caught a lot of hype and deservedly so (and my Wife absolutely loves this tune) (biggup my Wife). Still, the biggest combination, and the biggest tune altogether on ”Revelation” is another trio of sorts as bros. Stephen and Ziggy team up to do a tune from their Father’s infinitely loaded catalog, ‘Selassie Is The Chapel’. TEARS! This song is going to destroy a few foul and disgusting living individuals around the world and you may be one of them! I’d argue that it’s even better than the original in a few ways, with the most essential element of the tune, the PASSION, being so very high in both instances. MAMMOTH!

'Selassie Is The Chapel'

That undefeatable moment isn’t the only time Stephen deals in the music of his Father on ”Revelation”, as the album also features a couple of other updates/remakes, ‘Freedom Time’ and ‘Pale Moonlight’, respectively. The former, to my ears, is nearly outstanding and definitely does the original a fine job on the track. I was never a fan of the first tune, in regards to the latter (which is also called ‘How Many Times’) and this one doesn’t do too much for me, unsurprisingly, but it isn’t a bad track either - Definitely one for the nostalgia seekers. I did catch on to the nice and FUNKY ‘Can’t Keep I Down’, which I was almost sure was a remake of something, but I can’t find anything else to suggest that it is besides my own intuition and in any case, it’s a nice tune. Later we get the KNOCKING ‘Old Slaves’ which quickly shows itself to be one of the real highlights on the album. At nearly six and a half minutes, this one is the longest song on the whole of the album and its one of the most ‘spacey’. There isn’t a whole lot in terms of activity going on with this one and, in a pretty rare situation, that’s a good thing, because you can definitely tune in the harsh nature of the vibes of the song better with less going on and it makes it much more of a musical EXPERIENCE by its end. Big song. There’s also ‘She Knows Now’, which I wasn’t too fond of, originally, but has well grown on me over the past week or so a small bit. And the album wraps up with a very interesting selection in ‘Now I Know’ (apparently we all know now). I mentioned earlier about music from Ziggy and Julian being just a bit too “Folk-ish” for my tastes and, ostensibly, ‘Now I Know’ is that type of tune . . . But I LOVE it. Stephen says absolutely nothing on the song besides “now I know” for the first ~ forty-five seconds and when it does get going, it doesn’t pick up very much at all, but there’s just something about this one which more than held my attention throughout and the same could be said for the album on the whole.

'Old Slaves'

Overall, while people like you and I will continue to hope that the Marley family will, someday, move into the line of their more active peers in terms of recording, even if you’re not in love with what they do every time, you have to admit that they do continue to impress and in terms of prevailing consistency, Stephen is the most impressive of that lot. Here, what we have is an album which I think has been vibed perfectly for the more mainstreamish thinking audience which will come looking for it the most. It’s a very nice blend of hardcore Roots Reggae with more Folk-ish/Poppish type of sounds in some respects, yet, as I said, it’s rooted in a very much Reggae-centric foundation with what is said. Still, Stephen and the album also manage to find enough room, within itself, to also be able to appeal to hardcore Reggae heads as well. And while I won’t suspect such a situation to develop on the followup (whenever it gets here), as for ”Revelation Part 1: The Root of Life”, it does such a fine job in walking that fine line between the two and keeping Stephen Marley and the Marley name apart from the rest, but relevant and musically compelling to so many different walks of life.

Rated: 3.75/5
Universal/Tuff Gong
CD + Digital
Stephen Marley
Stephen Marley @ Face

{Note: Not writing this weekend. Will see you back on Monday for something truly ridiculous . . . After I figure out what it is}

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