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Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley

Halfway Tree (Motown)

Damian Marley, the 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. But it took a village to raise his 16-track sophomore outing, Halfway Tree. Like all well-loved children, it's good-natured and eager to please.

The youngest Marley's singsong 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. But 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 is 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-rants. 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 punanny 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 a dead end for 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 Beatz production team, where Jr. Gong gives away the secret to his success: "Him a Bob Marley son / How him get a Swizz Beatz / And you nuh get me none."

 
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