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Music Review: Luciano and Duane Stephenson – United States of Africa and Black Gold

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Reggae artist Luciano has been releasing albums steadily since the early nineties, but his most recent, United States of Africa, is the first one I’ve had the opportunity to listen to. I’ve heard of him, of course, and his reputation as a deeply religious, deeply conscious artist who exists outside the trends of mainstream reggae and dancehall.

United States of Africa is an ambitious album, chronicling the struggles Africa has undergone and is still undergoing, but imagining it as a unified home for Africans and the African diaspora. The album deals with the Rastafarian dream of returning to the Motherland with an intensity, sensitivity, and understanding of current affairs that isn’t present in most reggae odes to leaving Babylon and returning to Ethiopia. Luciano also ties in concerns with the economy (“In This Recession,” “Invasion”). This is protest music done right.

The production combines earthy rasta dread with contemporary techniques and sheen. Luciano has a voice has a rough edge to it, which adds an element of depth to his music. The songs manage to balance a serious message with a sense of joy, which makes the album more uplifting than the subject matter might suggest. Highlights include “Moving On,” which sounds like classic rocksteady; “Invasion,” which is both weary and hopeful at the same time; the gorgeous “Unite Africa”; and the early reggae feel of “Hosanna.” I personally didn’t like the inclusion of alto sax and synthesizers on several songs, which added an unnecessary cheesiness. Still, United States of Africa is a powerful album, and places Luciano firmly in the tradition of Bob Marley.

Duane Stephenson is another reggae artists following in Bob Marley’s footsteps. His sophomore ablum, Black Gold, was released last month, following up on 2007’s August Town. Before striking out on his own, Stephenson was the singer/songwriter in To-Isis, who had a hit with a reggae version of Eric Clapton’s “Tears In Heaven.” Stephenson’s voice is reminiscent of Marley’s and he share’s the late legend’s heartfelt lyrics and social concerns. However, Stephenson’s music is polished with a layer of R&B sheen that veers close to schmaltz. The production is too cheesy and too middle of the road for my tastes, and as a result I wasn’t into this. Still, Stephenson has a great voice, and fans of smooth R&B should love Black Gold, even if I didn’t.

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