There is a reason for this compilation’s seemingly infinite success.
Celebrating its 35th anniversary, the best-selling reggae album of all-time hasn’t lost any of its stature or incredible influence. Legend remains a compelling introduction to Bob Marley’s music and to reggae as a whole. Songs like “One Love/People Get Ready,” “Three Little Birds,” “Satisfy My Soul,” “Easy Skanking” and “Jamming” are the most distinctly reggae and ska songs on the record, and each of them exudes the brightness and warmth of standing in a lush field with the sun kissing exposed skin. But while there is a lightness associated with these songs, their messages all seem to work beyond their surface level breeziness, forwarding Marley’s political and philosophical ideologies. On “Jamming,” Marley sings, “Jah children must unite/ Your life is worth much more than gold,” and ultimately, the songs on Legend speak for human togetherness, justice and progressiveness against inequities worldwide and more specifically in Marley’s home country of Jamaica.
Legend also showcases some of Marley’s more unambiguously political songs, some of which consist of his most emotionally resonant and musically intriguing work. Both “No Woman, No Cry” and “Redemption Song” remain incredibly impactful songs about trying to find hope amongst sociopolitical despair despite them both making their mark in completely opposite ways. “No Woman, No Cry” paints the picture of living in Trench Town with almost nothing, and trying to find the strength to hold on to some modicum of light to make it through. The song serves as a long, musically rich anthem that shows its roots in gospel with the Hammond organ and backing vocals that eventually lead to a massive sing-a-long and a track that continuously feels larger as it progresses. On the other hand, “Redemption Song” strips away nearly everything, including any reggae influence, placing Marley squarely at the forefront as he presents a simple and heartfelt track with lyrics praying for black empowerment, liberation-for-all and resilience in the face of long-standing oppression that feels reminiscent of the politically-focused eras of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs.
Utilizing these familiar musical influences and stylings, mixing them with his own reggae and ska background and writing lyrics promoting activism and universal love makes Marley’s music easily accessible to so many—songs with uniting themes, with musical bones that people who are new to reggae will love and recognize. Songs like “One Love/People Get Ready,” utilizes some previously written lyrics from Curtis Mayfield. Other tracks, like “Buffalo Soldier” and “Get Up Stand Up” take horn and groove cues from popular soul and funk music of the era while teaching important historical lessons and preaching civil rights. And “Exodus,” an ode to Marcus Garvey’s and Rastafarianism’s goal to return to Ethiopia, feels almost like a Santana track as a steady groove allows for the vocals, keys and guitars to wander about during the near eight-minute track.
If there is anything that doesn’t hold up, it’s the album’s nature as a best-of compilation. Legend ebbs and flows a bit awkwardly, without any sense of an emotional arc. After the uplifting horns and hopeful groove which opens “Is This Love,” the placement of “No Woman, No Cry” as the second track on album makes for a fairly distinct mood shift which lasts only briefly before being swiftly rebounded back into cheerfulness with “Could You Be Loved” and especially so on “Three Little Birds.” The opportunity to use “Redemption Song” as the final track—exactly as it as was initially used on Uprising, the final album Marley released while he was still alive—was unfortunately missed.
Now 35 years on, there is a reason for the compilation’s seemingly infinite success. Bob Marley’s music is a doorway for the rest of the world into reggae, into Rastafarianism and, maybe most importantly, into Jamaica. While Legend only scratches the surface of Marley’s musicality and political stature, it is a collection that works as an easily consumed manifesto regarding all the important things Marley wanted to say and all of the beautiful, creative ways he wanted to say them. At this point, the popularity of Marley’s name, image and association with marijuana might extend even beyond the knowledge of his personal history and political commentary; however, Legend offers itself as the best starting point for discovering what made him such an icon in the first place—the ability to portray his experience as a Jamaican, the political unease, the poverty and the religion to the rest of the world—and guides listeners towards an entry to Marley’s mythos.