Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Big Youth

  • Progress [Negusa Nagast, 1980] A-
  • Rock Holy [Negusa Nagast, 1980] B+
  • Some Great Big Youth [Heartbeat, 1981] B+
  • Live at Reggae Sunsplash [Sunsplash, 1984] B+
  • A Luta Continua [Heartbeat, 1985] B
  • Isaiah First Prophet of Old [Caroline, 1997] *
  • Natty Universal Dread [Blood & Fire, 2000] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Progress [Negusa Nagast, 1980]
To the sexy singsong, colorful patois, and spacy tracks of Jamaican toasting, Manley Buchanan adds something like unalloyed joy--he looks and often sounds like the happiest man on earth. It's not just ganja, either--if ganja could do that, Peter Tosh would be the happiest man on earth. Somehow Youth embodies everything most benign about Rastafarianism--even when he's berating Babylon, which is often, he's unsectarian about it, suffused with humanitarian compassion for all victims of wickedness, Babylonians included. His most songful album is full of suffering and violence, yet its fundamental mood is one of gentle transport, the spiritual certainty of the born prophet. And for a sample of heaven ganja-style, it closes off with two sweet dubs. A-

Rock Holy [Negusa Nagast, 1980]
Seeing Youth live gave me new insight into why they call it toasting--he's a toastmaster, a Rastafarian George Jessel, complete with carry-a-tune crooning, name-dropping tributes, and shuffle-off-to-Babylon stage routines. All of which were wonderful--the enthusiasm was that unmediated. His evolution into a roots Mr. Entertainment has changed his records, which now include songs. Not great songs, either, as I would say. But "Get On Up" is a great chant, "Bang Dibo" a great goof, "Many Moods of Big Youth" a great mélange, "We Can Work It Out" a great cover (by anybody). And he outsings Kurtis Blow. B+

Some Great Big Youth [Heartbeat, 1981]
Youth's first official U.S. release after a dubwise decade of JA stardom features the five best cuts from 1981's Rock Holy and two good ones from 1980's Progress, which may be his idea of progress but isn't mine. Like countless rockers before him, Youth is proud of his hard-won evolution from make-do genius to able pro. Me, I'd rather hear him chant over exotic brass and sistren than almost-sing almost-songs with or (as in this case) without them. B+

Live at Reggae Sunsplash [Sunsplash, 1984]
Like most live toasting LPs, this tends to wander. The band intro is as irrelevant as most, tracks sometimes just fade out, and there are few recognizable songs. but the two you're sure to notice--"Hit the Road Jack" and "Every Nigger Is a Star"--are the best introduction on record to the militantly entertaining visionary optimism of the most untranslatable of the great reggae artists. And the show as a whole sums up his loopy, unselfconscious moral confidence like nothing else. B+

A Luta Continua [Heartbeat, 1985]
First side's the usual homiletics--broad-minded as ever, musicianly rather than dubwise, and nothing his fans need to know. But on side two he gets mad, savoring the phrase "shit-eating grin" on "K.K.K." and livelying up the tenacious militance of the title track with Afrobeat horns. This is what college radio ought to be for. B

Isaiah First Prophet of Old [Caroline, 1997]
Mr. Sunshine Meets the End of the World--in 1978 ("World in Confusion") *

Natty Universal Dread [Blood & Fire, 2000]
Especially given the label's fondness for sonic byways, I admit that these three CDs of obscure-inna-Babylon Manley Buchanan filled me with gray-haired professional dread. Oh I-and-I of little faith. Youth remains an unimaginable original whatever his debt to U-Roy, whose (comparatively) suave presence on the two-part "Battle of the Giants" only highlights the younger toaster's innocence and joy. Rapping, chanting, preaching, sing-songing, ripping off War or Ike & Tina or the Last Poets, Youth never undercuts his race-conscious commitment to agape. Even invoking damnation's "Hotter Fire" he assumes no prophetic airs, and he details the poverty of "Riverton City" as if reciting a nursery rhyme--as if he's the little child who shall lead us. His mission is to render palatable a Rastafarianism he knows as the simple word of Jah. The rhythms are obviously essential. But only on the dubbier final disc do his revealed truths lose any charm. A-

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