April 12, 2007
from 5 (excellent) to 1 (poor)|
|Vocals : -||Backing : -||Production : -||Sound quality : -||Sleeve : -|
This collection is certainly long-delayed and eagerly awaited: Stephen's been recording his own songs for two decades, touring with the Melody Makers since the 1980s, and above all making a name for himself as a producer: a sometimes memorable collection of mostly hip-hop remakes of Marley tunes titled "Chant Down Babylon" (1999), and producing Grammy-winning tracks for brother Damian Jr. Gong. As concerts here in Jamaica illustrate, Stephen and Gong are the de facto co-leaders of the Marley tribe. But only here in 2007 has Stephen finally released his first solo album.
After hearing the first few cuts, my reaction was, don't believe the hype, re: the best Marley album in a decade, or two decades, or blah blah...I've worked my way through the whole album now, and on a second listen I'm coming to appreciate some of it. Stephen has a quirky talent for hooks inflected by hiphop and R&B; he's clearly aiming for several markets here.
On the roots side, "Lonely Avenue" and "Chase Dem" are quality. "The Traffic Jam" with Gong, also available in an extended mix with Buju Banton, is already a hit single on BBC's 1Xtra dancehall chart. And "Inna De Red," featuring Ben Harper, has its moments, like a group of children calling Rastafari, and a Bob sample at the end, but in general it's a rather tired nyabinghi retread.
The title song is meant to be an anthem; I don't think it's doing anything original, musically, but it has some lyrical gems:
"Old Grand Master
let the people go
you put them in total confusion
to downstroy their souls
for they practice what you preach
so they're always in your reach
Hi-tech slavery in these days.
It's Mind Control.
They'll make it attractive
to get man distracted..."
That echoes Bob's
"They say what we know
is just what they teach us
And we're so ignorant
that every time they can reach us" ("Ambush")
as well as Michael Franti:
"All means to attract and distract" ("Television")
If I were looking for contemporary examples on the same theme, I could not let pass the chance to quote a terrific posthumous release from the late, highly beloved Joseph Hill:
"Some people don't read
Because of that they don't succeed
They have to follow rumor
listen what they say and be satisfied with it" ("Raw Truth")
"Mind Control," the song, acquires a certain dubby grace on repeated listenings. "Mind Control," the album, is rather hit and miss. I think there is plenty here to satisfy discriminating roots fans, and some less-than-stellar nods towards hip-hop, such as "Hey Baby" with guest artist Mos Def. But there are also too many throw-aways, such as "You're Gonna Leave" and "Someone To Love," an un-necessary bonus track.
Stephen has his own unique charisma, but after having seen him several times here, and listening to the album, I'd say it's the kind of charisma that he can't sustain for more than 30-45 seconds at a time. Like when he performs "It Was Written," the crowd explodes, but as with most of his songs, he doesn't sustain the momentum. But the hook lingers in the mind with an unusual power...
I've been watching Stephen since he was a youth in the late 1980s and through the 1990s with the Melody Makers: he often comes across as high weeded, and distracted, on stage. However, Stephen is clearly at home in the studio and he and an all-star cast has provided plenty of sonic treats here.
IMO, no way does this measure up to the sustained inventiveness of Gong's "Welcome To Jamrock" album, of which it must be said that Stephen was a major contributor. But "Mind Control" does demonstrate why Stephen continues to be an important team player, and an invaluable producer, for second-generation Marley music.
[Reviewed by Gregory Stephens, Lecturer of Cultural Studies and Film, Department of Literatures in English, University of West Indies-Mona. He is the author of "On Racial Frontiers: The New Culture of Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, and Bob Marley" (Cambridge UP, 1999). Among his most recent reports on Jamaican culture is the essay "Warring Against One Love". Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more of his writings, interviews, and radio shows visit www.gregorystephens.com]