As far as pure reggae music goes, Duane Stephenson is the real deal. Just looking at the tracklist of his latest record Dangerously Roots provides all the proof you need to justify this. All the boxes are ticked for every stereotypical trope you’d expect from the tiny Caribbean island nation: The omnipresence and power of Jah’s love, The evils of Babylon, endearing patois mutilations of grammar (The wonderfully incomprehensible Mutabaruka Inta-lude and Outro are the best examples) and if all that isn’t enough, the record’s lead single is cheekily called Cool Runnings. Thing is though, as reverently as Stephenson tries to make a proper “reggae” record, throughout the album’s 16 tracks there’s something intangible but still crucial that is missing.
It could be the production – Look, it’s great that we live in a digital age when it’s possible to execute any musical idea with frightening speed and precision but for a genre like reggae, you kind of want to hear at least a little bit of ash spilled from the ganja chalice in the channels of the mixing desk and the overworked tape heads of spacey delays and reverbs. The imperfect immediacy of dub mixing is an integral part of why the world fell in love with reggae music nearly half a century ago, but any hint of rawness or grit is glossed over and buffed out of Dangerously Roots and for that, it definitely suffers.
The unintentional T-Pain-ful autotune glitches on Juline which features I-Octane – another reggae star from slightly further west on the island – are a weapons-grade bummer to hear (especially with the connotations of “roots” music that the record’s title promises) and the Kenny-G style soprano sax solos that are strewn throughout Ghetto Religion, Rasta For I and the almost cringeworthy love song Simply Beautiful are jarring at best.
It’s not completely awful though. There’s no denying that Stephenson is a talented dude with his rich, evocative baritenor and impressive range sitting atop each of the squeaky-clean mixes with intent and conviction. It’s just a shame that the heart and feel inherent in reggae records that stand the test of time are traded in on this album for some frankly pretty tired lyrics and band tracks that, despite living up to stylistic expectations, are polished and tightened up to within an inch of their life.
Ironically for a record called Dangerously Roots it proves to neither be very dangerous nor particularly true to roots music. It’s perfectly serviceable good-natured reggae to put on as background music and, sadly, not much more than that. Savour it though, as you surreptitiously suck back a sneaky scoob with some friends in the sun this summer, but stoney side-effects aside, there’s nothing that memorable or engaging on Dangerously Roots that will warrant repeat listens and it’ll probably just remind you to listen The Wailers’ Catch a Fire again immediately instead.