Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Black Uhuru

  • Sinsemilla [Mango, 1980] B+
  • Red [Mango, 1981] A-
  • Tear It Up--Live [Mango, 1982] C-
  • Chill Out [Island, 1982] B+
  • Anthem [Island, 1984] A
  • Brutal [RAS, 1986] B+
  • Positive [RAS, 1987] A-
  • The Best of Black Uhuru: 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection [Island, 2002] A

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Sinsemilla [Mango, 1980]
With Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare drumming up your basic buzz and Ansel Collins's slyly dissonant piano flourishes catching the occasional fire, this sexually integrated Jamaican trio get up on music alone. But only the pan-Africanist theme songs "World Is Africa" and "No Loafing" get all the way over. Must reflect the special enthusiasms of the integrationist among them, who happens to be Babylonian born and raised. B+

Red [Mango, 1981]
Believe me, Michael Rose isn't trying to fill anybody's shoes--he'd probably rather not wear shoes. The ululation and ragged sense of line are pure country, like Jamaican field hollers; lots of times the songs don't even rhyme. But "Youth of Eglington" lets you know right off that this is a country boy who reads the papers, and with Rose pouring forth and Sly and Robbie rolling that rockers riddim, you don't really care that it never gets any better. A-

Tear It Up--Live [Mango, 1982]
Third album's awful soon for a live one, you might think, and then notice that only one of the eight titles is on Red or Sinsemilla. That's because six of them can be found--in clearer, denser, trickier, scarier, longer versions--on 1979's Showcase, available as a Joe Gibbs import. "Abortion" is anti, natch, and Jah knows where they can stick it, but you'd never guess from these remakes how effective it and all Uhuru's early songs can be. Here in Babylon we call this kind of thing a scam. C-

Chill Out [Island, 1982]
This hasn't made itself felt the way Red did for fairly marginal reasons, hype/timing not least among them--the need for a new Marley becomes less urgent as the self-evident truth that there ain't gonna be one is absorbed. The musical margin is about urgency as well--not the quality of the riffs and riddims but rather the relative elegance, and detachment, or their execution. In a music of margins, such fine distinctions encompass worlds of woe that high-tech pros like Sly and Robbie abandon at their peril. B+

Anthem [Island, 1984]
Uhuru's three U.S. releases after Red were so disappointing that I ignored this when it came out in England late last year, but I understand why those who didn't resent the dub/disco effects now mixed into "What Is Life?" and "Botanical Roots" and "Try It." All the songs are so strong and catchy and righteous--so anthemic--that it seems perverse to distract from them in any way. But they're also so strong they stand up to the treatment. The plus on the U.S. version is the cover--Rufus's "Somebody's Watching You" was an interesting choice competently rendered, while Steve Van Zandt's "Solidarity" is a very interesting choice that turns wishful thinking into dream come true. A

Brutal [RAS, 1986]
Junior Reid joins the group ululating in much the way Michael Rose did before he developed into a singer, and the big loss is even more crucial: politics, some rudimentary specificity. But up against the run of ridmic rhetoricians, they do fine. Both Reid and Duckie Simpson have a knack for rhetoric, and while Sly and Robbie should have pushed Simpson's "Reggae With Me" out on the dancefloor where it belongs, this is their most pyrotechnic production yet--they've brought Babylon back home. B+

Positive [RAS, 1987]
Sly and Robbie won't knock you out, but on Uhuru's best records they never do--given the right songs and performances, all they have to do is make them righter. Junior Reid is now a raspy soul wailer in command, which not so paradoxically gives Duckie Simpson and Puma Jones more room to express themselves, and harmonize too. And while the bootstrap capitalism of the title tune is more Babylonian than the self-made Reid knows, "Pain" and "Dry Weather House" and Simpson's climactic "I Create" place blame with a negativity nonbelievers can relate to. A-

The Best of Black Uhuru: 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection [Island, 2002]
The finest reggae group of the '80s--maybe ever, behind the obvious, or until somebody with ears and all-label access does a Culture comp. In two decades solo, Michael Rose has never approached the spirit groove he hit regularly with Duckie Simpson, the great Puma Jones, and the greater Sly & Robbie, who in turn peaked with this band. Its best album was its last with Rose, 1984's Anthem, and its only previous comp, 1993's Liberation double, is mucked up with dubs and 12-inch mixes aimed at some combination of the ganja/dancehall markets. Only one such here, and only two Anthem tracks--just songs as songs, inextricable from S&R's thick, echoing rhythms, Jones's female principle, and Rose's exultation in his own powers. There's lots of exultation on this record. But even "Sponji Reggae" and "Happiness" proceed explicitly from suffering. A