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What I’m listening to this week: Damian Marley

September 12, 2009

Welcome to Jamrock – 2005

I’ve talked about Damian Marley several times already on this blog, mostly in reference to other people, and considering that Welcome to Jamrock is one of my favorite reggae albums ever, I thought it was about time to give it its own review.  It was almost an accident how I ended up liking Damian Marley so much in the first place.  Back in 2005, the husband and I had picked up a promotional copy of the single “Welcome to Jamrock” because it was a Marley child, but then promptly avoided listening to it, mostly out of fear that it would be terrible.  Finally, when we decided to give it a whirl one drunken night, we were taken aback by how much we loved it.  It was hard-hitting, raw, and gritty, not at all the sunny generic reggae jam we might have been expecting.  When the album came out, it was one of a handful that we listened to for the better part of a year afterward.  It’s my opinion that of all of the Marleys making music today, Damian has come the furthest in carving his own niche, and Welcome to Jamrock was the album that established him as a musical force all his own. 

It should be said that Stephen Marley (whose album Mind Control I reviewed a while back), the uber-producer of the Marley clan, played a significant role in helping to shape Welcome to Jamrock, although Damian’s influence is clearly all over it.  Welcome to Jamrock isn’t your classic reggae album by any sense of the words; it’s definitely an urban album, fusing rap (including the hallmark of most rap albums: plenty of cameos), R&B, and dancehall reggae into something distinctly different from any of those genres.  Through it all, Damian is the star of the show, his ultra-smooth flow, unique phrasing, and clever lyrical prowess taking center stage even when the tracks are embellished with production elements.

Welcome to Jamrock begins with “Confrontation”, a song that lives up to its bold title and makes a huge first impression, with Haile Selassie dialogue and a Bunny Wailer spoken word introduction over military-like drums and dramatic synth strings.  Then the song explodes into Damian’s lyrics, all about war in Babylon and the necessary fight for self-preservation in Rastafarianism, and between the verses, Marcus Garvey’s angry rallying cries.  Sound heavy?  It is, but it also manages to be accessible and above all, it’s exciting to hear urgency like that in music.  Later in the album, “Move”, which quite effectively borrows a sample from Bob’s “Exodus”, is a companion to “Confrontation”.  It’s filled with that same sense of urgency, and Damian rapidly firing a similarly themed message.

The track “Welcome to Jamrock” made a splash long before the album dropped, earning that much-coveted crossover onto American radio, and cementing Damian as a central fixture of reggae today.  On the album, it’s just as dominant.  The song, about the reality of street life and corruption in Jamaica, is filled with cracks, hisses, and pops, carried musically by a simple keyboard melody, and propelled by an Ini Kamoze sample, ends with the sound of a gun being loaded and cocked.  It’s been said about “Welcome to Jamrock” that it is the most accurate recent depiction of life on the streets in Jamaica (check out the lyrics here), and it’s absolutely an undaunted effort, which resulted in Damian receiving the 2006 Grammy for Best Urban/Alternative Performance for the song (and the album also won Best Reggae Album).

But Welcome to Jamrock isn’t all completely stone-faced (have at it punsters!).  “The Master Has Come Back” is fun, rooted in reggae sounds, braggadocious, and Damian’s flow is hypnotic.  Likewise, “All Night”, a kind of electro-reggae track featuring Stephen, is playful and sexy (if laced with dirty Jamaican double entendres).  “Hey Girl”, with Stephen and Rovleta Fraser, is the down-and-dirty answer to “All Night”, a modern R&B-influenced track that probably could have been a success on the radio and is one of the best tracks on the album.  “Beautiful” featuring Bobby Brown…yep, you read that right!…is also seductive, but it suffers from being almost too sleekly produced, with lots of jazzy elements.  Luckily Damian saves it from being cheesy with nimble rapping and almost humorous lyrics.  The album closer, “Khaki Suit” is a fantastic dancehall toast with Bounty Killer and Eek-A-Mouse that is pure entertainment.

Lovers of spiritual and message-filled reggae will also find something to their liking on Welcome to Jamrock, from “There For You”, a dedication to Jah, “For The Babies”, “Pimpa’s Paradise”, and “In 2 Deep”, to the especially brilliant “Road To Zion” featuring Nas.  Then there’s the uplifting “We’re Gonna Make It”, finding Damian coming his closest to traditional roots reggae and singing, definitely channeling Bob in one of the finest and most original upbeat inspirational reggae songs heard anywhere lately.  Welcome to Jamrock is a massive achievement in reggae music, but also an achievement in music, period – unique, lively, fresh, ambitious, and done impeccably well.  It’s another must-have in my book.

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