After more than 30 years as a reggae musician, Cocoa Tea should be either a cutting-edge groundbreaker or a standard-bearing legend. As Biological Warfare disappointingly makes clear, he's neither. The dancehall vibe he's worked with for most of his career has seen him occasionally flirting with progressive electronic sounds that threaten to push the genre forward. Similarly, his lyrics have had moments of daring, even controversial inspiration.
Here, however, the listener is confronted with a nearly 50-year-old reggae artist somnolently delivering well-worn themes atop even more well-worn rhythms. Plasticky beats that, unbelievably, were played by live musicians, plinky keyboard lines and by-the-book arrangements do little to light a fire under Biological Warfare. The lyrics trod through the garden of Babylon, Africa and Hailie Selassie as if Cocoa thinks he's the first to yelp "sons of Jah" in a song. Tucked into the end of the album, though, is "Rise Up," a slinky groove, punctuated by weirdo electronic touches and accompanied by a well-crafted, nearly-poetic set of lyrics. In that one moment, the disappointment of what was, to that point, an innocuous-enough reggae record, is made that much clearer.
If Cocoa Tea is capable of delivering songs of "Rise Up" caliber, why doesn't the rest of the album, er, rise up to that level? It's a question the aging musician may want to ask of himself before heading to the studio next time. Reggae has seldom been a genre praised for its variety or inventiveness, but Biological Warfare sadly makes the case for those who make the usually specious heard-one-heard-all accusation toward it.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.