The mighty Midnight Raver has a great piece about Skip Marleys signing at Island Records. I originally started to write a comment but as it got longer and longer I realized I had a piece. Thus, I decided to publish it here at Whagwaan (a German reggae blogazine) 1.
Skip Marley, grandson of Bob, signed a deal with Island Records. The article over at Midnight Raver’s examines this move and it’s historical as well as contemporary relevance in-depth. When reading it, one thing struck me. Writing about Skip’s new single Lions, the young Marley’s first release on Island Records, Michael Watson asks: „Is that the sound of success?“ Well, maybe. It’s definitely the sound of modern pop, flavoured with some reggae artifacts (more on that in a minute). So, supposedly Lions has the chance to appeal to a mainstream audience. But as Raver himself says, only time will tell.
The more interesting question to me is another one anyway: Is the reggae core audience going to rate dat sound? Let me explain why I believe this to be an important question. It has to do with my theory about artist longevity. My hypotheses is pretty simple: Artists will, on average, enjoy a longer career if they have a solid foundation within a genre. It’s like an insurance for them. As such, it comes in very handy once pop’s ephemeral preferences shift – and with it the public’s awareness.
Of course, that isn’t a universal law. Every once in awhile there is a brilliant pop musician who defies this trend by successfully adapting her or his music to the ever shifting preferences of the public. Madonna comes to mind as a prime example. But the number of pure pop artists with true staying power is only a tiny, tiny fraction of all musicians. Thus, as a rule of thumb, having a solid foundation in a genre seems like good career advice to me. Skip, then, should try to not only attract a pop audience but also appeal to reggae fans. His name, whether he likes it or not, guarantees their ears will initially be open. His music will decide for how long.
So, let’s try to answer whether or not the reggae audience is going to like this new Skip Marley sound. Once again, time will tell would certainly be a sensible answer – but a boring one at that. So let’s instead take the fun route of arguing the case! That we can’t possibly know the future doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have opinions about it, right?!
As a reggae blogger I certainly qualify as part of the genre’s core audience 2. I think about myself as musically pretty open-minded. It’s well documented that I’m in favour of flirts between reggae and other genres – under a sole condition: great sounding results.
As long as that’s the case, my heart for reggae music is rather big. From early dub to badman rave, from rocksteady to gothic dancehall, from Nyabinghi to Afrotrap: Great music is to be found across the reggae map. If we leave the appropriation debate aside for a second, even some tropical house releases aren’t bad. And yes, I think it’s good for the music when Rihanna releases a Work and Ed Sheeran’s Shape Of You probably isn’t horrible for the genre’s trajectory either.
All this public musical self-analysis is to make one point: I am not a reggae purist. But I assume a fair number of reggae fans is.
With that in mind let’s look at Skip’s two new releases in order to recklessly speculate what the reggae massive might think. Based on a (methodically totally unsound) extrapolation from my personal preferences. Sound’s like fun, doesn’t it?
(play video at your own peril)
Let me start with Chained To The Rhythm, Katy Perry’s “purposeful pop” single to which Skip provides a feature appearance. I’ll keep it brief and basically restate what I wrote about it here: The song is a horrible pop tune with no vibes whatsoever. The hook makes we wanna instaskip it whenever its first, techno sound effect-induced, beat starts. 3
Skip’s part is easily the song’s best section. That, though, doesn’t mean I’d advise you to endure the rest of the song just so you can hear the 21 seconds of Skip. Sure, just skipping to Skip’s part (I know, I know. Just had to!) is an option nowadays but in all earnest: there is no reason to do so. If you are into reggae – or good music in general – you don’t need to hear any of Chained To The Rhythm. However, because I’m ever at your service, dear reader, let me give you the only relevant piece of information that comes from it: Skip is a smart kid. He managed to sneak a plug of his Lions concept (I’ll explain in a sec) into his guest verse.
Looking at it from a career building perspective, the feature might be a good way for Skip to get his name out to a broad pop audience. If that’s his goal: good for him! It’s lost on me where Perry fans and Skip fans are supposed to overlap but that’s none of my business. Also: What do I know? Right now, Skip really doesn’t have a fan base. His 2015 singles Cry To Me and Life got some (very deserved!) buzz in the reggae scene. They have pretty decent numbers on YouTube and Co (for a reggae newcomer, that is). But he certainly has nothing like an established, organically grown following. Thus, we can’t even be sure that future Skip will sound anything like the Skip we met on his two former tunes. Who knows, maybe his new music will be closer to what Perry fans prefer after all?!
The reggae-appeal verdict: 1/9 (1 because everything with the name Marley in it cannot get a 0 on any reggae-appeal scale that wants to be taken seriously)
The Reggaetivity of Lions
Luckily Lions is, aesthetically speaking, a lot closer to reggae than the Perry song. But it is not a reggae song. Watson put it perfectly when he wrote:
“So why has Island Records decided after more than three decades that now is the time to reinvest in reggae?
The answer is, quite simply, they haven’t. I knew that the first time I listened to the new single. At least they aren’t investing in any sort of reggae sound that I’m familiar with.”
Later he calls the song an “unrepentant pop anthem” which hits the nail right on the head. But it’s not bad pop 4. While the hook borders on being intolerable to my ears, the tune clearly has reggae roots: Skip’s singing has a reggae flavour to it, the beat features some passages with offbeat drums and the vocals are in tune with a rich tradition of political reggae songs. Also, of course, the Lions theme. It’s a hat tip to rastafari culture and his grandfather.
Alas, not everybody might be able to get it. While Skip uses the lion as an iconic symbol for his “movement”, he doesn’t give any further hint to its origin or meaning (Lion of Judah, the reason rastas where dreads etc.). If one wanted to be particularly critical, one could make the argument that Skip thereby deprives the Lion of its meaning and turns it into just another pop cultural artifact.
That might be a bit too harsh though. I assume it’s better to have some cool lions in pop culture than to have no lions at all. Smart kids will google it and connect the dots.
The reggae-appeal verdict: 4/9
On the same note, I think it is better to have a Marley singing critical songs on big stages than not. Even if those songs are pop songs. Yet, it’s Skips responsibility to ensure hat tips to his heritage don’t go unnoticed by the broad audience he’s trying to reach. Doing so is giving back to the music his grandfather once brought to the world (a fact which, frankly, isn’t unrelated to his new deal).
If he does, I’m pretty sure the reggae audience 5 will appreciate Skip. Even if his songs won’t make it into any soundsystem’s selection – which I’m also pretty sure about, based on the currently available evidence:
Average reggae-appeal of Skip Marley 2017 relases (as of today): 2.5/9
If you didn’t read the Midnight Raver post, I highly recommend you get over there and do so.
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Excellent analysis Thomas! You took a deep dive into the situation and it was well worth it. If Skip continues down the Island pop path he will in all likelihood never have the reggae street cred that the rest of his family has earned. However, he will enjoy a much broader appeal. I think that is a gamble both he and his mother Cedella are willing to take.
I’m really curious how he will progress. Did you see the proper video for Lions? I actually liked the aesthetics of it better than the song. Fingers crossed for him.
That being said: I stick to my point that having a firm foundation within a established genre is a good idea for most artists. It’s gonna be interesting to watch if Skip will or won’t try to do so in addition to his pop releases…