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What I’m listening to this week: Stephen Marley

June 28, 2009

Mind Control – 2007

Mind Control is the first solo album by Stephen Marley, the second oldest of Bob Marley’s children.  Prior to its release, Stephen had spent most of his career producing albums for his numerous siblings in the music industry.  In fact, I was first introduced to Stephen Marley during the taping of the Damian Marley episode of Austin City Limits.  He produced, co-wrote, and appeared on Damian’s album, Welcome to Jamrock, and came out for singing duties on those songs, plus some covers of tracks by their famous father.  And this was with good reason; Stephen without a doubt has the closest voice to Bob’s and is able to match his inflection and range.  On Mind Control, Stephen also convincingly proves that he has quite a bit of the same vision and inventiveness that made Bob so beloved.

Mind Control has many of the same themes of classic great reggae albums; railing against self-serving and corrupt politicians, and delivering warnings and lessons about the evils of society to his listeners.  What Stephen Marley does to differentiate himself though, is incorporate styles from across the board; traditional reggae is blended with Latin beats, hip-hop, funk, blues, and even other styles of reggae like dancehall and roots.  Stephen offers something for everyone and therefore tries to bring awareness of reggae to new audiences (and his efforts were rewarded with a Grammy in 2008 for Best Reggae Album).

The title track, “Mind Control”, feels like an old-school reggae sound, particularly with the horns and the cutting lyrics, but is thoroughly modern in the style of its synthetic drum beats and soulful background singers.  It’s a take on a standard, carefully crafted to connect with current audiences.  “Hey Baby”, which features a rap from Mos Def, is an apologetic love song with a message of having to follow your destiny above all else.  Stephen takes a more aggressive stance in the fantastic “Iron Bars”, which features several guest appearances (including another Marley sibling, Julian and an in-your-face dancehall toast from Spragga Benz), and then that is followed by “Traffic Jam”, a collaboration with Damian.  Those two tracks share a similar theme – the utter dismissal and disrespect of law enforcement – except that “Traffic Jam” is done in Damian’s more freewheeling dancehall style and the brothers display a huge amount of playful arrogance, the type you can only inherit by being the offspring of a legend like Bob Marley.

Speaking of Bob Marley, Stephen also wisely samples his monumental hit “Jammin” for “Chase Dem”, a hardcore reggae groove that targets politicians pointedly.  One of the most unique and alluring tracks on Mind Control is Stephen’s cover of Ray Charles’ “Lonely Avenue”.  Stephen turns it into a soulful reggae affair, accompanied by his backup singers.  “Let Her Dance” is the Latin flavored track on the album, and the final track, “Inna Di Red” featuring Ben Harper, is a very personal meditative jam.

If Stephen Marley continues to produce solo work this good, it’s quite feasible that he could break into the mainstream, something that so far only Ziggy has accomplished.  Mind Control is a reggae album that enthusiasts should not be without.

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