A review of Stephen Marley’s Revelation (Pt. 1 The Root of Life)’ (2011)
Voice-wise, Stephen Marley is definitely his father’s son, more so than his brothers Ziggy or Damian. He cut his musical teeth in Ziggy’s Melody Makers, then chose primarily a producer’s path — he is largely responsible for helming Damian’s solo records as well as 1999’s Chant Down Babylon, a collection of authorized remixes and mashups of some of his father’s most famous tracks featuring the cream of conscious hip hop artists. Stephen consistently delivers (and may in fact be responsible for pioneering) a measured, intelligent and conscious (even spiritual) “new reggae” sound that remains true to reggae’s one drop roots while acknowledging everything that’s come since – dancehall, hip hop, etc.
This record has a lovely, meandering and — dare I say — summery feel to it. It’s by no means a collection of light anthems aimed at reggae tourists (far from it), but there is a woozy, dreamy quality to some of the tracks that (despite their often thoughtful and detailed political message) makes this play particularly well on a hot day.
There’s a broad spectrum of themes here, both musically and lyrically. On the musical front, the variations are fairly subtle. There are several rastafarian chants, scored — in typical 1970s reggae fashion — with hand drums and acoustic guitars. There are quite a few deep one drop anthems with strong tunes in the best Marley family tradition, played and produced with an impressive mastery of both the band and studio idioms. If the lyrics weren’t so sincere and the causes so noble, it would be impossible to completely escape the notion that these versions are almost cynically similar to some of the Wailer’s best 1970s material. Instead, I think the true accomplishment here is that Marley understands the classic elements of the signature sounds of reggae’s heyday so well, he’s actually able to produce authentic and charming new material that’s completely steeped in the tradition.
Oddly, the odd track out here is the first single, ‘Jah Army,’ featuring Damian Marley and Buju Banton. It has a choppy hip hop feel; while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s definitely the most contemporary of the pieces presented here and (for me, at least) doesn’t really work. I admit, though, that I struggle to wrap my head around Buju Banton’s presence on this record at all — he’s easily one of the most controversial figures in reggae, initially gaining international notoriety because of his openly anti-gay views and songs, and lately serving a 10-year sentence in a US Federal prison for conspiracy to possess and distribute approximately 5kg of heroin. As always when great artists also turn out to be despicable people, one struggles to reconcile the two extremes.
This Revelation shows us a panoramic, wide angle view of what reggae was at its zenith, and that those forms are by no means antiquated. According to interviews and press releases around its May 2011 release, Pt. 1 will be followed by Revelation Pt. 2, which promises to contain a wide selection of material that explores how reggae continues to exist, matter and grow in its various descendant genres today.
Also highly recommended: Stephen Marley’s first solo record (I’m actually surprised I haven’t reviewed it here before).