uptown bwoys claim roots, branches
i've got a piece in this week's boston phoenix on the new albums from damian marley and sean paul. as one might expect, i focus as much on context as content. for those who've read my previous posts about mr.marley's music, you will find echoes of the same critiques here. my main concern was to communicate some of the complexities of this music to an audience that knows very little about reggae or jamaica.
as i've done before, i will reprint a version closer to the original below, especially since in this case an overzealous copy-editor has excised some of my subtler points and, in the worst cases, replaced straightforward descriptors such as "finest producers" with slightly pejorative terms like "fancy producers." (for the record, i would never call lenky, don, snowcone, or jeremy harding "fancy.") in another instance, my array of places-that-begin-with-n-where-bob-is-big was misguidedly truncated, cutting an essential reference to "northeastern" (which i was employing as a metonym for bob's fabled frat following).
that said, i think the piece still says a lot, and i'm grateful for the opportunity to get it into print and to reach an audience outside of the blogeoisie.
Uptown Bwoys Claim Roots, Branches
It may come as a surprise to some that Bob Marley, worldwide icon and Third World superstar, finds less favor in Jamaica than maybe anywhere else.
Don't get it twisted, star: "Bob," as most Jamaicans call him, is as much a Legend, if not a demigod, inna JA as, say, New Zealand, Nigeria, Navaho Reservations, or Northeastern. But Bob's success — not to diminish the irrefutable greatness of his music — was achieved in part through the savvy marketing and executive production of Island Records' mogul Chris Blackwell, who remixed Marley's music in London studios, overdubbing rock guitars and "cleaning up" the raw and ready sounds of the Wailers, and who sold Marley to the (First) world as a righteous rock star, a Rolling Stone Rasta for the middle-class masses.
Although Kingston's dancehall massive — which, at its core, is far from middle-class — has generally endorsed Bob's success, giving thanks for the minds and markets his musical ministry opened, they have long embraced performers who speak more directly to their concerns in a voice they better recognize: Dennis Brown, Yellowman, Buju Banton, Bounty Killer. An enduring tension remains for reggae artists who seek to move the massive at home and reach the masses abroad. Striking a balance between international appeal — irresistible in its riches — and local tastes has become the goal of many an aspiring entertainer in Jamaica. Two recent reggae releases, Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley's Welcome to Jamrock (Universal) and Sean Paul's The Trinity (Atlantic), reveal rather different ways of walking this tightrope.
Where Damian takes on social issues, Sean Paul socializes. Where Damian rasps his raps somewhere between Buju's gravel and his father's moan, Sean Paul emulates the smooth sing-song of Super Cat. Where Damian flashes his locks, Sean Paul flashes his watch. Jamrock features American mainstays Bobby Brown, Black Thought, and Nas, while The Trinity brings along uptown brethren Looga Man and Kid Kurup, Wayne Marshall (no, not me), and newcomer Tami Chynn. (Of course, Jamrock also hosts the likes of Eek-A-Mouse and Bounty Killer, two dancehall DJs with impeccable cred.) While Damian and his brother Stephen program their own beats and use a crack Jamaican house band on several cuts, Sean Paul employs dancehall's hottest producers: Lenky, Snowcone, Don Corleone, and mastermind Jeremy Harding. And, yet, there's something strikingly similar about the ways these two artists project their sounds and images to the world.
Despite the differences, their struts are the same. There's an uptown air about both artists, a cosmopolitan flair, an ease about floating through the world. Unlike many Jamaicans, they are free to move. (Both are jetsetters, to their credit — Sean Paul's been to Egypt twice since "Gimme the Light" set the world on fire, and Damian has called Miami home for many years now.) Yet, for all their mobility, one feels the tugs — weh do what dem got to — of Jamaican roots. Anchoring themselves to reggae's solid foundation, Damian and Sean Paul ride the waves of international pop (which is to say, hip-hop smoothed out on a R&B tip with a dancehall feel-appeal to it), and they do so with buoyancy and flow. Both performers display a strong hip-hop sensibility, mixing dancehall's steady-rock declamations with rap's multisyllabic, over-the-bar rhyme-schemes, while peppering their patois with "jiggy" slang (which is to say, often outdated, but still resonant in Kingston). Remarkably, their embrace of hip-hop style, which is far from total, neither endears them to nor alienates them from their local following.
For one thing, partly because of their literal and figurative distance from downtown, neither Marley nor Sean Paul has ever been fully accepted by dancehall denizens. Sure, they each have their anthems and their hits — tracks that selectors "pull-up" even at the most dungtung venues. But, in general, they are ignored, overlooked, and sometimes reviled. Sean Paul records on most of the popular riddims that come out and thus gets some play in the dancehalls, juggled alongside more hardcore acts, whereas Damian operates as more of an outsider, reaching the island's open ears on smashes such as "Welcome to Jamrock" but otherwise appearing as a specter of sorts, occupying that hallowed but somewhat hollowed place reserved for the Marley dynasty. His 2001 Grammy award tells you something about his established reputation abroad. The winning album's title, Half-Way Tree, referring to the city square where uptown and downtown meet, tells you something about the way Marley self-consciously positions himself.
For another, hip-hop's presence in Jamaica is not — and never has been — odd or problematic in itself: Jamaicans of all stripes long ago embraced hip-hop (and, more generally, the sounds of black America). Only a few months after "Rapper’s Delight" brought hip-hop to the wider world in 1979, Welton Irie worked part of the track into his tune "Hotter Reggae Music." In Jamaica, hip-hop can signify militant, pan-Africanist blackness, t(h)ug/hustler pragmatism, and cosmopolitan, pan-American dreams. Most Jamaicans, however, draw a subtle but firm line between embracing reggae's Yankee cousin and falling victim to "foreign mind." Enduring inequalities that correlate all too well with one's shade of skin, and one's freedom to move, exert no small pressure on the meanings of music and culture in Jamaica.
But meanings shade differently in different contexts, and there are many — in Jamaica and abroad — who revel in the success of Marley and Sean Paul with that consummate pride that West Indian folk feel for their fellows. The ever-increasing number of people invested in reggae — an international audience of aficionados and devoted practitioners — itself ensures an enthusiastic reception of any chunes big enough to reach a farin. Of course, mainstream America has already demonstrated its approval of both acts: The Trinity is the biggest reggae debut in the U.S. to date, with 107,000 copies sold in the week after its release on September 27; prior to The Trinity that record was held by Marley's Welcome to Jamrock, which moved 85,000 units when it was released two weeks earlier.
Their success is well earned. Author Jeff Chang rightly pronounces Damian's album to be "the best Marley album ever by someone not named Bob." Damian's got flow, no doubt, while the Marley boys prove themselves to be competent, versatile producers, if a bit hit-or-miss. At times they range a likkle too far across the map, falling into SNL-sax-style, smooth-jazz sinkholes and taking a few too many cues from Eric Clapton's "I Shot the Sheriff" rather than their father's version. But overall the beats are hard and polished, and Damian's vocals show both growth and potential. His righteousness is as inspiring as it is cloying, unfortunately, which makes for a bumpy ride but gives you a good sense of the lay of the land. And, of course, the big chune of big chunes of 2005, "Welcome to Jamrock," is itself worth the price of admission — my own, and others', qualms about its contradictions notwithstanding.
Considering that both compete in the same marketplace, for my money, Sean Paul's album is the better of the two. The Trinity is power pop par excellence. Sticking to some of dancehall's finest producers, it boasts the better riddims. No schmaltzy overproduction here, just bear Triton funk. And Sean Paul has always been wicked when voicing in the studio: his sing-song hooks are well-crafted and tuneful (if simply so), his verses immaculately delivered, and his overdubs sweet as ever in their strange-but-smooth harmonies. Sean Paul's songwriting rarely strays from seduction or sexual prowess, but perhaps that's for the best. A couple ventures into more serious topics lack the grace of his regular efforts. Mainly, they lack the levity of what we've come to expect from Sean Paul. His music is, on the main, lighter than Marley's. Maybe that's why his confections go down easier.