While the hyper-kinetic, computerized dancehall sound and in-your-face street personas of DJs like Elephant Man and Sean Paul have dominated the public image of reggae for the past two decades, a kinder and gentler sound has been quietly gaining momentum. Since the mid-‘90s, traditional roots reggae—the hiccup-rhythmed tropical sound made famous worldwide by Bob Marley (indeed, the sound that most people think of when they think of reggae)—has resurfaced as a viable commodity in Jamaican music. And one of—if not the—driving forces behind this resurgence is Luciano.
He is perhaps the most universally revered, iconic figure to emerge in reggae over the past decade, and if you want to know why, just give Jah Words a listen. Luciano’s voice oozes a serenity and righteousness beyond his 30-something years, but not at the cost of his passion or charisma. With his contemplative nature and contagious smile, he combines the austerity of a religious leader with the approachability of a drinking buddy.
This versatility is reflected in his music, which wafts between cultural, pious roots messages, crooning love songs, and even the occasional dancehall diversion. Fans know what to expect from Luciano—they’ve eaten up this sound on some 20 albums since his 1994 debut—and this one delivers no deviations from the script. What it lacks in originality, though, Jah Words makes up for in sheer quality. From top to bottom the tracks score, with only the most minor of missteps (such as, why is “Angel” basically the exact same as “Angel Heart”?).
The leadoff tune, “Are You With Me”, establishes Luciano as a musical missionary, making clear that there’s no room for half-heartedness from those accompanying him:
“People, are you with me or are you against me? /
Or do you shut the door in my face? /
Don’t you know I’m here to uplift the human race? /
Come along and take your place.”
“Many Things” furthers the conceit, calling on listeners to “Revolt against all evil / So our conscience may be free, / And fight if we have to, / To achieve our liberties.”
Later, “Foot Soljah” shows the more humble side of the leader as he struggles “trying to overstand this thing called life”. It’s a moving testament to his servitude to Jah that could very well serve as Luciano’s theme song.
“Perfect Love” and “Angel Heart” meanwhile present the other end of the love spectrum, as he professes his romantic feelings in a pair of dreamy lovers’ rock cuts. The more edgy roots jams “Cry for Justice” and “Jah Words” prove that Luciano’s no softy, though, while dancehall fans should get a kick out of the spirited, digital sound of “Why Should I” and “Look Deep Within”. Even the risky remake of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (commissioned for the 2004 Bob Dylan reggae tribute album Is It Rolling Bob?) has a certain charm, despite covering a song that flirts with the type of overexposure that has blunted some of Marley’s works.
When Luciano’s career ends decades down the line, several of these songs could easily be remembered among Luciano’s all-time best. If you’re already a Luciano fan or are just looking for an introduction to what makes him so popular, Jah Words is hard to beat.
// Notes from the Road
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