Pitchfork’s Sunday Review is a weekly forum where writers revisit a “significant album from the past” that has not been reviewed at Pitchfork before. As someone who really enjoys reading these deep dives, it was a thrill to be invited to contribute one of my own — and one that focused on a classic reggae album. While reggae has generally been — and remains — a singles-driven genre, there are plenty of great albums to consider, whether from roots reggae’s heyday, decades of mesmerizing dub sets, or (soundboy) killer efforts from throughout the dancehall era.
My editor suggested Toots and the Maytals’ Funky Kingston, one of reggae’s first albums to hit as a worldwide sensation, and a wonderful vehicle for exploring what it meant to make reggae — and to make reggae for an international audience — at the moment the genre was beginning to crest in popularity. I’ll leave you with the opening below, but go ahead and read the whole thing over here.
After a shuffling drum intro, a steady groove invites us to let down our guards and open our ears. With another drum roll, the band pivots to the “one-drop,” Jamaica’s reigning rhythm since the ska days. The kick drum and rimshot anchor the backbeat, often emphasized by an organ stab, while the bass moves a simple, sinuous pattern and the rhythm guitar chops chords between each beat. To heighten our appreciation of this interlocking ensemble texture, the instruments are panned across the stereo field, the lead guitar plucking a lightly bluesy, bubbling counterpoint across the room from the steady offbeat skank.
Centered in the mix, Frederick “Toots” Hibbert begins to preach in terms downhome and direct, in a Jamaican country brogue plain enough for all to understand. Sleep won’t come. The rent is too high. Your brother can’t find a dollar, and neither can I. Time tough. In a sly inversion of hip slang, everything is out of sight, but not in a good way—life is so hard even the basics seem out of reach. Today is judgment day, so let us pray and all join in a rising refrain of higher and higher. But this isn’t about spiritual transcendence or ganja-fueled meditation. What’s getting higher is the cost of living. It’s 1974, and the future is unclear. Yet somehow this group playing secular church music in rubbery sync, with chapel-ready backup harmonies and a lead singer in the throes of ecstasy, lift the song itself up to show that deliverance is possible if we band together.
“Time Tough” immediately frames Toots and the Maytals’ Funky Kingston as a wry testament to the shared circumstances of the black and working-class masses. It registers the depth of struggle, while offering grounds for celebrating the ways life can and does go on. As its title reveals, the album courted an international audience by nodding to what was then the latest form of black musical currency, a suggestion Toots received from Island Records’ Chris Blackwell, who was impressed by the unlikely crossover success of “Funky Nassau” (1971) by Bahamas-based band The Beginning of the End. Funky was a style Jamaican artists like Toots were proud to pull off with unique swagger.