Bob Marley's second son has followed an unusual career path. From child star with the Melody Makers to Grammy Award-winning producer, Stephen Marley has now at age 34 finally gotten around to releasing his debut solo album. Inevitably, expectations ran high, but just what would the celebrated and eclectic artist deliver? The answer is Mind Control, an album that will invariably garner him another Grammy, and deservingly so, for this is a stunning set. Thoroughly immersed in music since birth, open to sounds both new and old and from near and far, and with that genetic Jamaican talent for borrowing others' styles but remaking them as one's own, Marley has crafted an album that's timeless and borderless, but still reggae in feel and thoroughly fresh in sound. He admittedly had help, from siblings Damian, Julian, and Sharon as well as veteran (mostly Jamaican) musicians and studio hands, and a clutch of guest singers, rappers, and toasters. But don't hold that against Marley; only a fool would turn his nose up at such top-tier talent for the taking -- and besides, it's his vision they're interpreting. And Marley's vision ranges far and wide, but also close to home on "Chase Dem." Here, over a fabulous, bubbly roots reggae version of "Jammin'," Marley runs off the politicians responsible for so much misery in this world. Of all Bob's children, Stephen most closely evokes him vocally, and never more so than on the heartaching "You're Gonna Leave," with the brooding melody echoing of the Wailers as well. But the arrangement and production are all Stephen's own, and beholden not to Bob but to the Bristol sound.
Famously, in 1974, Bob found himself trapped in a "3 O'Clock Road Block" (aka "Rebel Music"); Stephen and Damian, in contrast, are caught in "The Traffic Jam." Millions of words will flow on the generational shift that these two songs epitomize, the righteous anger of the sufferer that Bob's number represented, as compared to the arrogance of the young, rich, and notorious illuminated by his sons. Taken on its own terms, though, "Jam" is a ludicrously infectious hit in the making, brilliantly blending together both old-school dancehall and hip-hop, with a "stick together" message that somewhat salves the boastfulness of its lyrics. It's also an anomaly within the album -- the rest of the set is far more thematically thoughtful and musically subtle. The opening three tracks (skipping the "Officer Jimmy" interlude) all beautifully blur musical divisions and offer strong messages. "Mind Control" melds Stax-styled brass, a funky bassline, and modern beats with a warning against propaganda. The yearning "Hey Baby" is rootsy in feel, with a haunting blues edge, strong digitized beats, and a rap from Mos Def. The cross-fertilization reaches fruition on the tough condemnation of imprisonment "Iron Bars," which seamlessly incorporates rock, blues, country & western, and roots, with contributions from brother Julian, rapper Mr. Cheeks, and toaster Spragga Benz. From the phenomenal reggae cover of Ray Charles' "Lonely Avenue" to the Latin-flavored "Let Her Dance," Stephen showcases everything he has to offer -- his musical and vocal skills, writing talent, inspired arrangements, and stunning production abilities. Fittingly, the album ends with "Inna di Red," a religious-inflected number, best described as chill roots, that features samples from his father and Ras Michael, as well as a chorus of Bob's grandchildren. All of Bob's children live in his shadow, but Stephen has never felt an overwhelming need to escape out from under it -- it's etched in his soul, the ties of the past as integral to him as they were to his father. However, Stephen has continued to grow, adding new sounds and styles to his repertoire over the years. A conduit to the past and a bridge to the future, his music -- like his father's -- sounds timeless: reggae that embraces the world.