Recorded during a residency in Port Antonio, Jamaica, Thievery Corporation’s The Temple of I and I is perhaps the group’s most focused effort to date—which also makes it their least adventurous. Throughout the album, the band digs deeply into reggae vibes and dancehall rhythms, and brings in local players and lyricists to forge an atmosphere of authenticity. If their previous sonic travelogues had the light and sterile touch of a brief sightseeing jaunt, this one attempts to leave a footprint.
Not quite a tourism ad for Jamaica nor the end result of a commissioning of native art, the album nevertheless exhibits the problematic eavesdropping of both, and relies just as readily on the easy touchpoints of traditionally black music that American and European pop artists have often appropriated. Typically only interested in a musical style to the extent that they can upcycle it into loungey bliss, Thievery Corporation proves less capable here at truly understanding and reimagining a region of sound.
The Temple of I and I adds plodding horn charts, woodblock counter-rhythms, slow-rolling guitar scratches, and spacey bass lines to the group’s usual downtempo cues. Any sense of grit or hustle routes exclusively through its guest artists, whose themes of anguish and alienation are undercut by Thievery Corporation’s overwhelming commitment to nonchalant production, and a sound more akin to that of Snoop Lion than Lee “Scratch” Perry.
The album often blurs the subtleties across different forms of Jamaican music and expression into a tempered, detached sound. “Ghetto Matrix” is a stirring commentary on mass incarceration (American hip-hop artist Mr. Lif raps about “a complex plan that keeps us confined”), yet bubbly percussion and an especially buoyant chorus prevents the track from transcending easy-listening terrain; the same is true of “Fight to Survive,” where Mr. Lif’s call to arms is clumsily paired with a ska-lite beat. Only a few songs—the feisty dub workout “Letter to the Editor” and the sunny “Drop Your Guns”—truly work as negotiations between found sounds and studio sheen.
Unsurprisingly, The Temple of I and I is at its least inoffensive—“Time and Space,” the ensuing “Love Has No Heart” (which suggests Portishead on mild uppers), and “Lose to Find”—when it sees Thievery Corporation indulging in their trademark smoky-afterhours sound. Each of these songs feature woozy female vocals, nimble bass, and keyboard and jazz guitar that might smolder off a Quincy Jones production—though not much in the way of Jamaican influences. But following this stretch of anonymous exercises in ambience, the group haphazardly reprises their toying with Caribbean musical sounds.
The album is at least a sensible experiment for Thievery Corporation, who’ve always crossbred dub undertones with their various musical detours. But the history and ancestry of Jamaican music goes beyond the conga and calypso fills heard here, and is more sophisticated than synth hiccups approximating puffs of smoke. Too sleek to be real, The Temple of I and I sounds less like Jamaica than the music on the Virgin flight you might hear on the way there.