Stepping out from behind the boards and into the spotlight, producer, performer, and songwriter Stephen Marley will soon release his long-awaited solo debut, Mind Control on the Tuff Gong / Ghetto Youths / Universal label. The album is a rich and varied musical banquet-strictly ital of course-lovingly prepared by a master chef.
The production mastermind behind Damian “Junior Gong” Marley’s double-Grammy-winning Welcome to Jamrock has appeared as a guest vocalist on all three of his youngest brother’s albums dating back to 1996. Junior Gong returns the favor on the boisterous beat-box-driven hit single, Traffic Jam. Said tune, which has been bubbling all over radio waves this winter, must be the most cheerful song ever recorded about a ganja bust.
This playful mood is balanced by the preceding track, Iron Bars, through which Stephen channels the outrage of an innocent man incarcerated for partaking of a sacramental herb. Let me out, he roars, I’m an angry lion. That track’s only flaw is that Spragga Benz’s ferocious guest verse is so powerful that it proves impossible to follow (leaving one listener fiending for a full Benz album, but I digress). Elsewhere, Mos Def contributes a tasty verse to the tender Hey Baby but such a personal song doesn’t really require another point of view; the cameo feels tacked on rather than organic. Ultimately, the strength of this record is not in the guest spots, but the main attraction.
So much has been made of his production skills that it’s a revelation to focus on Stephen’s vocals for a change. Much like his father, he’s a man of many voices. On the blazing title track and cuts like Chase Dem Stephen sounds like he’s got a belly full of fire. Modern roots reggae gets no rougher. His deejay flow on Traffic Jam recalls the days when he used to bust two rhymes as the raggamuffin little brother in the Melody Makers. But on the magisterial album closer Inna De Red, Stephen’s voice bleeds all over a backdrop of Niyabinghi drums, Ben Harper’s bristling guitar, and children chanting the name of Jah. It’s a fitting conclusion for this impressive debut, serving as a reminder that at the end of the day, Stephen Marley’s musical mission is about much more than entertainment.
He spoke with electric intensity that evening in the recording studio. When talking about his own work, thoughts of his father, whom he refers to by the old street name, Gong, are never far away. With every word, the depth of Stephen’s artistic commitment was crystal clear, as was his sense of responsibility for upholding a legendary family legacy.