"Welcome to Jamrock": Old-school message, new-school flavor

Oct. 5, 2005, midnight | By Ethan Kuhnhenn | 18 years, 4 months ago

Damian Marley's Welcome to Jamrock heralds a new era of reggae

Before rappers rhymed about life in the projects, social injustice and getting that green, reggae artists in the 70's and 80's were some of the most vocal icons in poor black communities. Artists like Bob Marley, Burning Spear and Lee Perry countered pop music in the 70's with songs about racism and brotherhood, good and evil and the sins of capitalist society. Today the voice of rising reggae presence Damian Marley, the youngest son of reggae legend Bob Marley, reverberates through city speakers, echoing the same message that pioneers of his genre sang about 30 years ago.

Damian Marley's third album, `Welcome to Jamrock,' marks the re-emergence of reggae without the dancehall influence that is the trademark of other Jamaican artists like Elephant Man, Beenie Man and Sean Paul. `Welcome to Jamrock' mixes surprisingly complex lyrics with beats that reflect both traditional reggae baselines and hip-hop percussion. However, the emphasis of the album is on the content of the songs and not the production. In nearly all of "Jamrock's" 14 tracks, Marley makes a statement about the impact of poverty, crime and capitalism in Jamaica.

It's important for Marley to address these issues, which have been largely ignored in recent years as mainstream Jamaican music has solidified to the mostly beat-oriented Dancehall. Marley's powerful and well-conveyed message is complimented by track production that is simple, but does not hesitate to stray from mainstream, sort of like Marley himself.

Even after winning a Grammy for his second album, `Halfway Tree' Marley's name was still relatively unknown in the United States until the Sept. 19, 2004, release of his hit single `Welcome to Jamrock.' The single immediately became a radio favorite and is one of the better tracks on an album that is filled with many potential hits. The song's heavy baseline and simple rhythm reflect the era of reggae dubs in the 80's and 90's, while the lyrics, sang in Marley's one-key pitch, describe the violence and poverty in Kingston, Jamaica.

On the following track, `The Master has Come Back,' Marley shifts from 80's dub reggae to a livelier, thumping style highlighted by a tribal baseline and heralding brass. The song strays from the politics that is the focus of most of the album, but Marley still displays his lyrical skills sans the social statement. `Master' is also one of the few tracks where Marley exhibits cockiness. `A new face will fulfill the prophecy/ It's too late for two-face apologies,' cries Marley.

By far the best-composed and most thoughtful track on the album is `Road to Zion,' an eerie duet that combines Marley's observations on the life of poverty with militant-minded rap artist Nas' harsh, provocative and image-filled lashings. `Road to Zion' combines the most poignant of Marley's lyrics with a wailing harp and a subtle hip-hop beat. The faint and scratchy verses, along with the lonely melody of the harp is almost creepy and fits with the foreboding message in the song. However, it's really Nas who puts the emotion and desperation into the track. `Human beings like ghosts and zombies, President Mugabe, holding guns to innocent bodies,' raps Nas.

Stephen Marley, Damien's older brother and the album's co-producer, is guilty of over-production in a few of `Jamrock's' tracks. On `Khaki Suit,' Marley and the incomprehensible reggae artist Bounty Killer rhyme about nothing that has to do with khaki suits on a beat composed primarily of random noises, beeps and undistinguishable melodies. Similarly, on `All Night,' Marley—the elder—produces a monotonous track that is not enhanced by Marley—the younger's—typical lyrics about a fanatical girlfriend.

Overall, Damian Marley's scratchy voice and substantial lyrics are a welcome change to the Dancehall which has emerged in the past five years. The album's few problems do not detract from Marley's thought-provoking messages or the overall listenability of the album.

Ethan Kuhnhenn. Ethan Kuhnhenn is a junior in the Communication Arts program and is entering his first year as a SCO staff member. When he's not fishing in his new bass boat, you can probably find him at Taco Bell chilling with his best friend, the cheesy … More »

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