Without a template to follow (no rapper has ever collaborated with a reggae artist on a full-length project), Nas and Damian Marley connect on the strength of their shared ancestry and music background. Both artists hail from music families, Nas' father Olu Dara being a jazz musician and Marley's father...well, he needs no introduction.
Distant Relatives opens shop with the triumphant "As We Enter," in which Nas and Marley liken themselves to "two Obamas." Nas gets personal about his divorce on "Strong Will Continue," before hauling some nasty barbs at an unnamed adversary on "Friends." Both songs find him erratically processing the idea of loyalty to great effect.
"Tribal War," powered by K'naan's show-stealing performance, cracks the whip on intra-racial violence. "Man, what happened to us?" Nas wonders. "We were once happiness pursuers. Now we're backstabbing, combative and abusive." Strong vocal presence by Nas and Marley imbue "Land of Promise" and "Count Your Blessings" with great gravitas. Conversely, "My Generation" is ridiculously cheesy for a track seeking to inspire a generation. The song's guest list -- Joss Stone, Lil Wayne, a children's choir -- sounds like it was randomly drawn from a match-making jukebox. By 50 Cent.
Nas has been dogged by poor beat selection throughout his career. Thankfully, that's not a concern here. Produced primarily by Junior Gong and his half brother Stephen, Distant Relatives is musically superior to Nas' last two albums. This album is adorned with ethereal strings, tribal drums, glorious horns, and samples of African greats like Amadou & Mariam and Mulatu Astatke.
Damian Marley is the star of Distant Relatives by necessity. When Nas is truly inspired he sounds like the best MC on the planet, if only for three minutes. When he dials it in, Marley is left to do the heavy-lifting. The rap-friendly "Nah Mean" is the only time Nas threatens to overpower Damian on Distant Relatives, but the tough talk-meets-boom-bap combo sounds legit coming from the gritty reggae star.
So what do Nas and Marley have to teach us about Africa? Nothing. And everything. Thankfully, they resist the urge to proselytize. What they offer, in the end, is a sense of history that derives its weight from the authority behind this project. No, it doesn't go far enough in furthering a discussion about culture wars, and the album occasionally dips its feet in preachy waters. But that's being picky. Even the well-intentioned progressives in the United States tend to view the struggles of blacks in Africa as a distant concern. Distant Relatives exemplifies the positive side of an ecumenical approach to social issues, which makes Nas as much a world artist as, say, Bob Marley. If you're in the business of perusing rap lyrics for every iota of contradiction, then that last statement is pure blasphemy. In the business of music as social commentary, however, Nas is peddling his version of a redemption song.Top Tracks:
- "As We Enter"
- "Land of Promise"