Sharps & Flats

Lauryn Hill and Bob Marley, together at last. But what's Aerosmith doing on this shameless collection of posthumous duets?

Published November 23, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Perhaps taking a cue from Natalie Cole and her "Unforgettable" harmonizing with her dead father, Bob Marley's son Stephen has put together this strange album, a collection of manufactured duets between the reggae legend and some of the biggest stars in hip-hop and R&B. Not surprisingly, the tracks on "Chant Down Babylon" don't really sound like beyond-the-grave collaborations. Instead, they sound like what they are -- pop stars like Lauryn Hill, Guru and Chuck D singing over Bob Marley tracks, with a few hip-hop beats and scratches thrown in.

Billed as a tribute to Marley, the album is interesting less for its fairly pedestrian re-workings of Marley classics than for the issues it raises about the sanctity of an artist's oeuvre and the rights of children to revise a parent's legacy. Is the very concept of authenticity a naive relic in the sampledelic present, with all of technology's necrophiliac possibilities?

Though the songs use alternate takes of old Marley tracks, his vocals don't sound significantly different from the original album cuts. The producers have largely retained Marley's rolling, sometimes calypso-tinged instrumentation, as well as many of the original soulful female backing vocals. On the first few minutes of "Johnny Was," for example, you'd never know it was a remake, but once Guru's superfluous rap kicks in, you'd hardly know it was a Bob Marley song.

The only song here that will likely interest longtime Marley fans is Hill's sublime contribution to "Turn Your Lights Down Low." As the mother of Bob Marley's grandchildren (with his son Rohan), she at least has connection to his legacy, and her passion illuminates this ballad like a bonfire in a blizzard. The new vocals seem fully integrated with the old: Her honey-glowing croon weaves in and out of Marley's yearning voice. A rap proposing to Rohan heightens the poignancy.

Hill elevates the whole enterprise, but elsewhere the tackiness of the project overshadows the music. Stephen Marley has said that the album is an attempt to realize his father's dream of reaching a young American black audience. This may be idealistic, but it can also be mercenary and divisive. Rakim's additions to "Concrete Jungle" are almost a desecration -- he raps, "Read your Koran and your Bible/Where the merciful get merciless, we need to read Psalm 82 verse 6." This is a slap in the face to Marley's famed Rastafarianism, as is MC Lyte's couplet on "Jammin'," "We're jammin' in the name of the lord/Sweet Allah." Everyone knows Marley's god was Jah.

The queasy aspects of the album are thrown into high relief by the inclusion of a version of "Roots Rock Reggae" featuring Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry -- the album's sole rockers. Here, the justification that "Chant Down Babylon" is fulfilling some long-cherished fantasy of Marley's breaks. Tyler's whiny scatting of the nonsense words "do the reggae" is maddening, and his ugly, scratchy moans render the whole thing unlistenable.

The version emerges as a craven attempt to piggyback on Marley's righteousness, to suck up a bit of his soul -- and it suggests something ugly about the whole endeavor. About this track, Marley the younger said in the album's press notes, "What we wanted wasn't Steve [Tyler] singing on a reggae track, we wanted Steve's audience, those people that he influences, to say yo, it's Bob Marley and yeah, he's hip 'cause Steve is singing with him." This is about marketing, not respect, and it suggests that Babylon has nothing to fear from Stephen Marley.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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