You could tell a good part of the Bob Marley and The Wailers story through song titles. In “Trench Town Rock,” the Wailers’ breakthrough Jamaican hit, the band gave the view from their streets. They kept telling those tales with “Concrete Jungle” and “Slave Driver,” along with love songs “Stir It Up” and “Baby We’ve Got a Date,” on Catch a Fire (1973).
On Burnin’ (1973), the group’s second Island LP, The Wailers took an even harder tone. The record opened with “Get Up, Stand Up” and continued with “I Shot the Sheriff” and “Burnin’ and Lootin'” on side 1. After Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer left the group, Marley stayed militant.
From 1974’s “Talkin’ Blues” (Natty Dread) to mid-’70s burners “Crazy Baldhead” and “Exodus,” Marley always reserved a good chunk of his albums for heavy material. Yet that wasn’t the case on Kaya, the 1978 album that became one of Marley’s biggest hits.
‘Kaya’ featured a far lighter tone than previous Bob Marley albums
Marley set the tone immediately with “Easy Skanking,” the opener to Kaya. “Excuse me while I light my spliff,” he sang in the first verse. “We’re taking it easy / We’re taking it slow.” Things didn’t get much more complicated on track 2, “Kaya.”
“Got to have kaya now,” Marley sang, using a slang word for marijuana. “I feel so high, I even touch the sky. […] I feel so good in my neighborhood.” That mood continued even on the minor-key track “Sun Is Shining.” In this reworking of the Wailers’ ’70 recording, “Sun Is Shining” lost its darkness.
Marley closed out side 1 with two of his sweetest love songs: “Is This Love” and “Satisfy My Soul.” In the latter track, the hard-edged side of Marley was nowhere to be found. “When I meet you around the corner, you make me feel like a sweepstakes winner,” he sang.
The tone didn’t change a great deal on the second side of Kaya. Marley told the tale of a man left behind in “She’s Gone,” then made a variation on that theme in “Misty Morning.” Maybe the closest got to breaking the mood was “Crisis,” the third track of side 2. But it doesn’t stick like the other songs.
Marley said he did ‘Kaya’ to ‘cool off the pace’ of his more militant work
Critics took notice of the change in tone on Kaya. In an interview with Melody Maker’s Vivien Goldman, Marley didn’t shy away from the subject when asked. “Me too militant,” he said, via Bob Marley. “That’s why me did Kaya, to cool off the pace.”
Marley also referenced the apparent attempt on his life a few years earlier at his Jamaican home. “Maybe if I try to make a heavier tune than ‘Kaya’ they would have tried to assassinate me because I come too hard,” he told Melody Maker.
Kaya didn’t mark the beginning of a trend. On Survival, his 1979 follow-up, Marley was at his most political (see: “Babylon System,” “Wake Up and Live”). And you don’t see Marley’s face on the cover. You don’t see him on the cover at all, in fact. He did turn up on the back cover of Survival, though, looking utterly defiant. In a word, he looks ready for battle.