Less Fire!

In 1996 a baby-faced Anthony B garnered as much controversy as sales with the hit "Fire Pon Rome." The driving chant, which called for cultural purification by any means necessary, struck a chord with Jamaican ghetto youth fed up with political corruption and cultural slackness. However, the track was banned from the radio for its perceived insurrectionist stance, a charge B bolstered by titling his debut album Real Revolutionary. In any case, the tune thrust both Keith Anthony Blair and the fundamentalist Bobo Ashanti sect of Rastafarianism that he represented into the public eye while turning "More fire!" into a reggae catch phrase.

Both B and the Bobo dread movement have been steadily growing hotter ever since. B is now an international headliner, and Bobo accessories like head wraps and robes as well as shout-outs to the late Prince Emmanuel Edwards are impossible to miss in the Jamaican music scene today. But B's music has also grown more nuanced. Today his songs are no longer exclusively prayers, parables, and incendiary prophecies. Both in message and sound, he seems to have agreed to meet Rome, or the world of desire and consumption, halfway.

On the cover of his latest album, Street Knowledge (Nocturne/VP), the head-wrapped B looks flinty and intense, the baby fat melted from his cheeks, a joint in his mouth so as to keep the fire burning inside. The picture and the album title are a sign of what's to come: messages from a dread who's lived long enough to speak from experience rather than rhetoric. Indeed, on tracks like the bubbly, Bobby Digital-produced "God Above Everything," B rubs elbows with sinners so freely that it makes his early work seem boyishly idealistic in comparison. "Me know you love your ride and your bling-bling/But put God above everything," he sings over percolating bass and counter-punching keys, embracing market-friendly American slang he wouldn't have touched seven years ago. But B's revised message is even more notable than the new words with which he delivers it. Consumers can still love their material goods (including, presumably, B's CDs), he suggests, just so long as they adore God more. Rome doesn't necessarily need to burn.

Which is a relief for us Romans, or Babylonians, or whatever term one prefers for those of us hooked on brukkin' out in between halo fittings. Evidently B lets his fire burn in not only to achieve divine equity on Earth, but also to show the young'ns a good time. It's right there in the credo he inscribes on the back of the album: "Me bun the faya fe the justice come round yah/Bun faya fe the youth dem have fun round yah." Production by heavyweights like Lloyd "John John" James, Lynval Thompson, and Steelie & Cleavie suffuse the more traditional, midtempo riddims with cutting-edge cool, while uptempo deejay tracks like the Anthony "Red Rose" Cameron-produced "Revelation" could warm up a dance floor in the grittiest club in Kingston. B's current seven-inch single, "Rasta Man Sitten," on the wicked ragga-hop C-4 riddim, was unfortunately not included on Street Knowledge, but it stands as an example of a holy man slaughtering bashment beats.

Unquestionably B is on a mission to save souls, and he also understands that such a task requires saving bodies from street violence. "Who kills the youths pon the block?" he chants over John John's fierce double-clacking beat on "Police." In that song and on Sugar Roy's churning, hypnotic "Good Cop Bad Cop," the answer is corrupt law enforcers. But B also takes gangbangers to task on the peppy "Don't Buss Your Gun," as well as the cloying, Wyclef Jean-penned "Gun Powder."

Which brings us to the drawbacks of chanting with, rather than down, Babylon. Or maybe he just gets lazy. It may be no crime that a handful of the one-drop beats ("Key to Heart," "Wine and Roses," "Fire Starter") sound like every other roots riddim out there. But the salsa-tinged "Dancing Mood," with lines like "when you feel the beat, you got to move your feet/... You've got all the soul deep down inside/You ca-an't 'ide," is Disneyfied schlock, the kind of reggae played for tourists at a corporate beach resort. And the Wyclef joint is not just bland, it's failed-attempt-at-crossover weak. Ouch.

B's missteps come from being an aging fundamentalist drawn to the energy of the young libertine. In attempting to bring two worlds together, he sometimes bores you by erring on the side of caution; occasionally he falls on his face. But three-quarters of the time he succeeds in delivering fresh yet honest urban music. When he growls "Yagga yagga yo" over song intros, then launches into nimble flows, a listener can't help but feel his rawness and precision -- or, in a word, his might. And that's the real revelation here. This prophet in the dancehall, like Daniel in the lion's den, fears nothing, not even turning the flame of his piety down for those who live in the darkness.

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Greg Doherty