In recent years, it has become clear that reggae stars rank just behind teenagers and sheep as the creatures most likely to follow the group mentality. Consider two recent trends: an explosion of Bob Marley tribute material and a shift in dancehall music to socially conscious themes.
Buju Banton spurred the latter development with his 1995 album 'Til Shiloh, which rejected the guns 'n' gangsters lyrics that dominated dancehall and instead preached fervent religious devotion. Banton's sincerity was disputable -- he built his career on violent lyrics -- but his success wasn't. Soon other artists followed suit, and a race began to see who could claim themselves the most righteous. Anthony B emerged around this time, and more than anyone, he has benefited from the trend. Though his music was never as violent as Banton's, B's first record was so politically heated that it was banned from Jamaican radio. Good stuff. But since then, he's ridden the commercially friendly tide toward tolerance, replacing fiery denunciations of government with a scrupulously inoffensive message of peace and unity.
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B's latest album, Seven Seals, continues in that direction. On the whole, the album is good. Along with a softer message has come softer music that moves away from militant barking and toward a more melodious singing/chanting style. B perfects this approach on broadly accessible fare like "Free" and "Family Business." But Seven lacks teeth, and it is at times overcome by phony earnestness, an overblown gospel chorus and cheesy spoken-word prayers such as "Miracle of Love." You can't help but suspect that, talent aside, this album is a canny pose of tactful modesty designed to cash in on a trend.
In terms of suspect sincerity, though, Seven Seals can't hold a flame to Bob Marley: Chant Down Babylon, an album that purports to be a tribute to the reggae legend. It's telling that one of the first mentions of Babylon appeared in Brandweek magazine, where it was described thusly: "Reggae meets retail when Turner Network Television teams with Best Buy and Volkswagen for a $3.5 million One Love Sweepstakes campaign for a concert celebrating Bob Marley." Ad execs reading the article must have been delighted to learn that starting in November, Best Buy customers could enter a sweepstakes to win a Volkswagen Beetle "done up in 'One Love' colors -- red, yellow, black and green!"
While Marley spins in his grave, it's clear that the purpose of all of this synergy and product placement is to promote an all-star concert to be broadcast on TNT on December 19. That's where the album comes in. Using the same technology that let Natalie Cole sing duets with her dead dad, Babylon lets stars like Chuck D, MC Lyte, Busta Rhymes and Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry team with Marley on some of his notable songs. In reality, this is less a tribute than a bit of high-tech karaoke.
Marley's shameless heirs, the production force behind this effort, have previously sold their souls, er, rather, his music to such goodwill ambassadors as the Budweiser frogs ("Jammin'") and have avoided scrutiny simply because they're Marleys. With the help of the good folks at Brandweek, they can spin this behavior as "tribute." But this album certainly marks a new low. For the curious, some tracks are okay (Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill). But Marley's contribution is minimal and often relegated to a sample or snippet of melody. Fans can probably do without the liner notes, too, which shill the officially licensed Bob Marley Ghetto Youths Bucket Hat ($20) and 144-Stick Bob Marley Incense Assortment ($15). It's a safe bet that if they could bottle Bob Marley's integrity like Austin Powers's mojo, his family would have it licensed and put it up for sale. Like this album, that's a sad comment on reggae.