Reggae’s Return to Roots


For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. As it is in physics, so it goes in Jamaica—where songs ever oscillate from the joys of Jah to the pleasures of pum-pum. Reggae’s recent Billboard strides—i.e., dancehall ambassadors Sean Paul, Elephant Man, and Wayne Wonder—have privileged the latter. The task fell on their lockless heads: Make it known that contemporary reggae need not look or sound like your father’s reggae; we can even steep in sexy, electronic vibrations more than acoustic, Rastaman ones.

But the pendulum has swung back. This summer’s sound—old stereotypes about reggae as beach music, not fit for the less-than-irie winter months, make reggae crossover a warm-weather sport—is looking like a return to roots. It began in Jamaica last year: A Rastafarian-reggae renaissance led by a spate of young, conscious artists turned the dancehall into a tuneful house of worship, where the songs earning the most forwards were brimming with righteous indignation or sweet and nice as fresh cane.

Two such tunes have migrated to our airwaves; the artists behind them are front-runners for the poster child post that Sean Paul has momentarily abdicated. Damian “Junior Gong” Marley’s “Welcome to Jamrock,” off his much anticipated album due in August, suggests that the youngest Marley might be the best one yet. Over a haunting sample of Ini Kamoze’s “World-a-Music,” Marley unleashes stunningly incisive lyrics about the hardcore Jamaica that Sandals-loving tourists, “on di beach wid a few club sodas,” never see. Never mind that this Marley grew up far from his father’s tenement yard; his tune is a brilliant marriage of old-school music and new-school vocals, a roots ethos and a dancehall vibe—which is just what Junior Gong represents: not a simulation of his father’s sound but a vibrant updating of it.

Unlike Marley, newcomer I-Wayne is a crooner, not a chatter. His voice is a whine, a wail, a whimper; he’s plaintive as a rabbi on the High Holy Days or importunate as a hungry child. All of which makes his hit “Can’t Satisfy Her” that much more memorable: Its sober subject matter—prostitution’s perils—boldly clashes with his guileless delivery. His summer debut will introduce a potential star, one who can soften the blow of lines like “burn the flesh seller and the buyer” (from “Can’t Satisfy Her”) or “stop fighting for land and oil” (from its dulcet follow-up, “Living in Love”).

Or maybe the star of the Rasta renaissance isn’t an artist but a long-legged riddim: the Drop Leaf, compiled on a Jet Star album of that name and created by producer Don “Corleone” Bennett. His one-drop beat and acoustic guitar riff inspire reggae-style soul music by the likes of Maxi Priest, T.O.K, and Morgan Heritage. The riddim even prompted Bounty Killer to let down guns and guard and sing—yes, sing—a love song, “It’s OK,” which sounds utterly flat and yet marvelous, because it’s so curious and unexpected.

As hot as every Drop Leaf track is—Sizzla works his signature falsetto in “Be Strong,” Luciano is visionary in “For the Leaders”—one song puts them all to shame: Jah Cure’s “Longing For.” Sure, Jah Cure is the reggae scene’s cause du jour. Sentenced to 15 years in prison for rape, robbery, and firearm possession, he claims he was framed and his legion of fans believe him. But the sheer, well, longing in his voice is bracing. Cure’s Freedom Blues was made by smuggling recording equipment into his cell, and while it’s missing his two best singles—”Longing For” and “Jamaica,” which, if it weren’t sung by an inmate, would likely be co-opted by the Jamaican tourist board as an ersatz “One Love”—the album is a triumph of heartrending vocals, which veer from passionate fervor to a serenity that’s breathtaking, considering Cure’s age (25) and his predicament (behind bars until 2011).

The list of conscious newcomers goes on. Richie Spice’s instant classic Spice in Your Life was the most stirring, divinely produced album of last year. Turbulence’s Songs of Solomon sets him en route from Sizzla-lite territory to full-fledged voice of his own. Fantan Mojah—armed with a backpack (a student of Jah?) and his grousing but well-meaning song “Hungry”—blazes up stage shows like a young Capleton. And for a primer of them all, old-school and new, there’s Universal Message Vol. 3 (VP), on which the voices of Jamaican consciousness are sundry: Sizzla sounds weary, wise, and weathered; Capleton brims with vengeance; Wayne Wonder croons honeyed melodies; Anthony B chats soberly, as if to awaken and enlighten us all.