Black music has many streams of expression, 2 of the most prominent being Hip-Hop and Reggae. And when you go back far enough, these traditions are seen to have their roots in the music of Africa. This truth is the basis for Nas and Damian Marley’s unique collaboration Distant Relatives, which aims to not only bridge the gap between their cultures, but also raise funds for a school in the Congo. And this focus has resulted in an album that will undoubtedly enrich the musical legacies of both men.
From the outset, it’s very obvious to listeners that both men took their time and built up a genuine, strong chemistry over the estimated year and a half recording period. The duo comfortably trade quick bars over the first single “As We Enter,” easily handling the several rhythm changes punctuated by horn and piercing drums , which is reminiscent of Welcome to Jamrock’s “All Night”. “As We Enter” serves to establish the direction of the LP, as Damian Marley proclaims them to be “street intellectuals,” and Nas posits their purpose as “real revolution rhymers.”
K’Naan guests on “Tribal War,” which address the in-fighting the plagues people of color around the world. Damian Marley crafts a beat of urgency using bongos and sorrowful chorus signing, as each emcee tackles the issue from different perspectives. Nas parallels international conflicts such as those seen in Darfur with American gang warfare, while K’Naan reflects on how Africa’s contributions are ignored or belittled in today’s society (“I drink poison/Then vomit diamonds/I gave you Mandela, Black Dalai Lamas/I gave you music/You enthused in my kindness/So how dare you reduce me to Donny Imus?”). And Damian Marley addresses the futility of man’s violent nature (“We nuh want no more of that/Everyone deserves to earn…Man a war tribal/Over colors/Over money, over land, and over oil, and over God” ).
Damian’s brother Stephen Marley assists on 2 tracks, “Leaders” and “In His Own Words.” On the former, Stephen handles chorus duties over a traditional, reggae-flavored track. But it’s Nas who shines in his 2 verses, using allusions to the Biblical figure of Esau, Prohibition gangster Bumpy Johnson, and Marcus Garvey to argue that a leader can come from any facet of society if they’re willing to answer the call.
On the latter, the trio gives listeners the first overtly spiritual track in “In His Own Words.” Again Nas works with 2 verses, and sharply notes his struggle with balancing his art, and how it has brought him closer to God (“How I balance between the streets and the theories of/collegiate literature/I hold mirrors up/Give combinations of pain, joy, fear, and love/Through my perspective/I can see Jah reflection”). Stephen’s bluesy, paced vocals provide a nice contrast with Nas’ faster flow, and Junior Gong brings it home lyrically in rhyming on the unity of creation (“All things are related/And creation is a package/Generate together/And we increase the wattage/A how them a go manage? Tell Babylon them can’t do Rasta damage”).
Since Damian Marley handled the majority of the production duties, the beats are void of any contemporary-styled Hip-hop rhythms. However, Junior Gong shows his versatility and knowledge of his partner’s strengths by making strategic rhythm changes to accentuate Nas’ style, as heard with the beautiful, guitar driven transition on “Count My Blessings.” Instinctively, both Nas and Marley fervently attack the songs with strong drums like “Friends,” “Dispear,” and “Strong Will Continue.” Ironically, the track with the closest link to boom-bap (“Nah Mean”) is dissected and dominated by Damian’s patois (“We nuh like dem colonial regime/Nah mean/Mi Queen hafi rock and come in/Nah mean/and jump pon mi big trampoline/Nah mean/And boost up her self-esteem”).
The remaining guests do exceptionally well in maintaining the theme of the album. Reggae fans will be delighted in hearing legend Dennis Brown helping in the remake of his classic “The Promised Land.” The seminal, bass-heavy funk of the song is perfect for any reggae/dancehall artist as Damian shows in his verse connecting America and Africa. But Nas also doesn’t misstep and incorporates end of days imagery in his portion (“If these are the last days/And 100-foot waves come crashing down/I’ll get some hash and pound/Pass around the bud then watch the flood/Can’t stop apocalypse/My synopsis is catastrophic”). Joss Stone compliments the child singing chorus on “My Generation,” and Lil Wayne shows his underrated adaptability with a succinct verse on his role with today’s youth (“This generation/I’m a represent/A generation led by a black president…So when you finish reading Revelations/Thank God for my generation”).
The album concludes with the poignant, lush ballad “Africa Must Wake Up.” The song is a call for those of African descent to not only remember their lineage, but establish an identity for the future, as sung by Damian (“Yesterday we were kings? Can you tell the young ones/Who are we today?”). Nas utilizes his 2 verses to speak on African culture’s discoveries in religion, architecture, and astronomy which assisted in humanity’s development. K’Naan reappears to offer a short, rhetorical refrain in Somali (“And when a country is built. Aren’t you the ones to tear it down?/ And when one attempted to tell the truth, aren’t you the ones to cut him down?). Nas ends the LP on a unifying note, explaining that because civilization derives from Africa, we are all family just spread out across the globe regardless of race.
Distant Relatives is an amazing achievement for both artists. For Damian Marley, it shows in these 5 years since this last LP (Welcome to Jamrock), he has grown as a producer and can lay claim to being one the most talented of Bob Marley’s children. Nas continues to evolve and age gracefully. Since 2002’s God’s Son, Nas has opted to use music to look inside himself for identity, rather than media, fans, or trends to define him. Instead of attempting to relive past glory (Illmatic) or personas (The Firm), he’s doing something many emcees become fearful to do; grow up with their audience and challenge themselves. And with the way he handled the varying production from Marley, Nas again shows why 19 years after his first appearance he’s still one of the premier lyricists in Hip-Hop.
Distant Relatives is a rewarding listening experience in its musicianship and lyricism, and one you can expect to go back to in the years to come.