Family dynasties come in all shapes and sizes. From Master P and Lil’ Romeo to Ravi Shankar and Norah Jones, the music business is one orchard where apples don’t necessarily fall that close to the tree. So when we get an album from Damian “Junior Gong” Marley — youngest son of the late reggae behemoth — it’s not surprising that his father’s influence is at once strikingly apparent and conspicuously distant.
“Welcome to Jamrock,” Marley’s third album, doesn’t have anything near the social consciousness of “Exodus” or “Catch A Fire,” so it invariably falls short in appealing to both urban-American club kids and the politically-minded liberal elite. But who can hold that against him? His musical ear is spot on: The album’s slick beats, catchy melodies and adroit lyricism prove he inherited far more from than a recognizable last name.
The album’s obvious standout is its title track, a sure-fire classic reggae bouncer that has translated well to American pop sensibilities. The track is hard-edged enough to fit in nicely on hip-hop radio, but along with the expected glorification of street violence and weed come attention-grabbing pop-culture references (Chuck Norris, Playboy bunnies, even the recent election).
Here Marley doesn’t let anything get predictable. Just when the song’s found it’s groove, he shuts down the beat and propels it into its haunting peak — an expertly-placed sample of an ’80s-soaked refrain from Ina Kamoze (remember “Here Comes the Hotstepper”?) If there’s any single reggae track from the last two decades that can capture the millions of international ears, this is it.
“There for You” comes in at a close second. The honest inner meditation is disguised as a nimble love song by light, lounge-lizard pianos and wah-wah back-beats. It threatens to float away on its own buoyancy, but is held down by Marley’s unbelievable vocals. His harsh voice vaunts up into falsetto before crashing down to sorrow, brimming over with emotion. “You’ve always been good to me,” he wails, “Even when I’m not good to myself.” A tender female chorus complements his caterwauling cries with a round of religious imagery.
“All Night” might be instantly likeable because of its sample-heavy production, but it’s instantly likeable nonetheless. The vintage hook sounds like Al Green produced by Lee “Scratch” Perry. The young Marley holds his own remarkably well when singing the sexed-up refrain and rapping seductively afterwards.
Outside of these three tracks, the album is remarkable for its diverse range — it touches on dancehall, NY/LA hip-hop, electronica and beyond. “For the Babies” is a melting-pot of reggaeton basslines, rock ‘n’ roll drum smacks, Eastern-inflected guitars, video-game blips and bleeps. Add to that Marley’s unique Jamaican lightning-fast wordplay and unceasing lilt and it almost becomes too much. The saving grace is the song’s lyrics; the track is a paean to single-motherhood and family. In this light, the overwhelming sound structure seems fitting.
Even the lesser tracks on “Jamrock” have a clever pop sensibility that is difficult to resist. On “Hey Girl,” a minimalist club-thumper, Marley indulges in some hedonistic narcissism, but his flow is on an entirely different level, his production wizardry a few clicks above the typical G-Unit jam. With lyrics like “The gang of Jamaican Al Pacinos/ Drinkin’ Blue Mountain cappuccinos,” he out Sean Paul-s Sean Paul. On “Confrontation,” built around a pretentious military march, he loops a doomsday-flavored violin sample around painfully hard bass thumps — but here his lyrics are too typical to save the track.
Especially infuriating is the wholesale interpolation of his father’s opus “Exodus” into the silly and derivative “Move!” With its vigorous, breakneck drumlines, the song of course sounds fantastic, but that’s because it’s practically a carbon copy of a downright classic (plus some background bongos). It doesn’t make matters better that Marley’s flow is practically incomprehensible — even Twista would be perplexed. The track is an unoriginal muddle.
But it is songs like “Move!” that make us appreciate the ones like “We’re Gonna Make It.” Here, Junior Gong meets his father at the crossroads of “Get Up, Stand Up” and “One Love,” channeling the late Marley with affecting hopefulness. And somehow the song’s solid, hard-charging reggae beat seems completely appropriate — the Rastafarian spirit would have been weakened by anything softer.
This is what counts most on “Welcome to Jamrock.” No matter how far Junior Gong travels on his musical wanderings, he always seems to know where home is.