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There's this old black and white photo of STEPHEN MARLEY; it's a portrait of the lion as a young man. He's standing against a wall of bamboo, rocking short hair and an '80s-style I-Threes t-shirt, puffed up and proud the way only a rebel youth can be. But there's something else in the image, something about the intensity and focus in Stephen's face, even as a teen, that shows in an instant that having the last name Marley has nothing to do with being the son of a musical icon or an heir to a throne. It does, however, have everything to do with being an individual with a purpose.
Stephen hammers this point home with the release of Got Music?, his highly anticipated solo debut. Music heads have been up on his work for years, whether for collaborations with R&B stars like Erykah Badu or his part on the dancehall burner "It Was Written," and especially after Chant Down Babylon, the platinum-selling, star-studded Bob Marley tribute he produced.
But Got Music? represents a new stage in Stephen's evolution, one that brings together the genius of his production and his wise and soulful voice with hip-hop beats, smoky bass, and winding keyboard runs. This is the sound of a man coming into full realization of his powers and his legacy.
"It's a blessing not to have to stagger through life. I was born firm and conscious," explains Stephen, who was first heard on record at age six as part of the family's group Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers. All the Marley children share the politics and passion of their father, so Stephen needed no introduction when he stepped up to become the de facto musical hub of his father's recordings and the family's various projects around age 18.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Got Music? is just how rooted in the real world it is. Never content to simply rehash the sounds and themes of the past, Stephen uses the full length of the album to balance his range of ideas as a songwriter, musician, and a man. The lead single "Mind Control" opens the album with a slow-burning groove that builds to a brushfire as it calls out the unseen social forces that still subject us to mental slavery; "Chase Dem" is even more explicit about the effect of political corruption on our lives. Stephen is never dragged under by bitterness, however: "Inna Di Red" is a poetic, mystical soul search that escapes the shackles of everyday strife, while the album's title track is a family roll call that shows the unity of the Marley clan in the face of struggle.
But Stephen is also a man unafraid to take a detour into music about emotional struggle. "Hey Baby" is an up-tempo yet tender apology to the woman who has stood by him as he's made his way through life's complications to grind for a better tomorrow. On the other hand, "Fed Up" flips the conversation with a self-explanatory title while Afrobeat meets the hard blues on "My Baby Mama." "Got Music? has more magic than great songs," says Stephen mischievously. But it has a little magic in it, still. And, perhaps more than anything, that's the secret to this Marley's auspicious solo debut: the magic created when diverse roots combine in an artist's singular musical vision, when a blistering electric guitar solo slides into a bluesy harmonica riff, and Stephen's wails "let me out, let me out/I'm an angry lion" on "Iron Bars," a collaboration with brother Julian and longtime friend the rapper Mr. Cheeks, the only guest artists on the album.
With the release of Got Music? that lion is out and he's roaring.