NEVER ONE TO mince words, Sugar Minott opens his new release, "Ghetto Child," with "This Is Reggae." A cross between a personal anthem and a plea for greater exposure and acceptance of the music, it sets in motion an album charged with spiritual yearning and deeply rooted emotions that transcend the usual party grooves.
Not that "Ghetto Child" isn't dance-hall music. It's pretty potent stuff in that regard, especially the thickly layered dub tracks that appear on the expanded CD version. But overall the best tunes are the ones that strike closest to home for Minott, a Jamaican star who grew up in poverty. His early struggles, suffering and fears are powerfully evoked on the album's title track and "Danger Zone," leaving little doubt that Minott understands the plight of his impoverished countrymen. And if his anti-drug message on "Dreadlocks Chalice" and spiritual themes on "Material World" and "Sweet Jesus" don't always have the same impact, the problem has less to do with Minott's soulful delivery than with the overly familiar sentiments.
Likewise, the young vocalist Chris Wayne's new album "Progress" (produced by Minott) attempts to combine socially relevant lyrics with a hypnotic beat, but in this instance the words are often lost in the mix. Part of the problem has to do with Wayne's light tenor voice. As tuneful as it is, it's no match for the reverb and rhythms at times, making some of the cuts sound more like chants than songs. Still, the restless youth anthem "Progress" and the infectious "Fan Me Pretty Baby" cast a sure-fire rhythmic spell.
Little John, a 10-year veteran of the Jamaican dance hall scene, also tackles some topical themes on "Boombastic," but as the album title suggests, he's more interested in moving your feet than your mind. To do it, he augments reggae's loping beat with both pop melodies ("Love Mi Lady") and funk arrangements ("Boombastic") and sings so buoyantly that you're likely to overlook more than a few forgettable lyrics.