Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley

Damian Marley, 24-year-old son of Robert Nesta and Jamaica's 1977 Miss World, Cindy Breakspeare, has his father's dreads, his mother's pretty face, and a raspy, just-out-of-bed vocal style all his own. On his sixteen-track sophomore outing, Halfway Tree, the youngest Marley's sing-song delivery would grow tired fast were it not for slick production by big brother Stephen Marley and a little help from a lot of friends. It took a village to raise this disc. Like all well-loved children, the result is good-natured and eager to please.

At times Damian's performance suffers from the proximity of greater talents: Bounty Killer's cameo on the opening track "Educated Fools" leaves no doubt that Jr. Gong could benefit from a toaster tutorial; where Bounty's pyrotechnic lips explode around the beat, the rhythm of Damian's rhymes sound about as supple as a metronome. That doesn't matter much on the haunting "It Was Written," where Damian's contributions are bolstered by an eerie synth line and nearly crowded out by the cumulative effect of Stephen's prophesying, Capleton's brilliant hi-lo dynamics, and Ruff Ryder rapper Drag On's blistering social contempt. On "Catch a Fire" Damian gets his biggest boost from his dad, whose sampled "Slave Driver" is sandwiched between Damian's strained if righteous rap-rant. When the monotonous MC goes it alone on "Mi Blenda," it's just a mistake.

The balance is better on Halfway Tree's lovely first single, "Still Searching," where the emotion suggested by Damian's petulant talk-song is heightened by an R&B chorus from "Jamaica's Stevie Wonder," Yami Bolo, and plumbed by a roots chorus in Stephen's forever heartbroken wail. Damian's pout sounds just right here, making this track alone worth the price of the CD. The message, about a man searching for "a fine peace of mind" rather than a piece of punnany would be refreshing if the assertion that "a virtuous woman is hard to find" didn't smack of a kinder, gentler misogyny. Blaming the victims, male and female, of the sex-for-hire logic of Babylon leads to the dead-end hit by Ruff Ryder rapper Eve when she shows up on the uninspired "Where Is the Love?": "The way we live is outlandish/Sex, they should ban it." That's one solution.

Another is just to give in and have a good time, as on the incense-fueled sex-me-up groove "Paradise Child," featuring R&B crooner Jimmy Cozier and rapper Mr. Cheeks. Or let loose with the Latin-flavored, Sly-and-Robbie-enhanced "She Needs My Love." Or bounce to the title track powered by the Swizz Beats production team, where Jr. Gong gives away the secret to his success: "Him a Bob Marley son/How him get a Swizz Beats/And you nuh get me none."


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