By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
When the rapper Nas and reggae artist Damian Marley, youngest son of Bob Marley, first teamed up five years ago, the result was solid, but not spectacular. “Road to Zion” was a typical mash-up with Nas dropping a verse into the pocket of a mostly completed composition. There was little interaction between the two.
All of that immediately flies out the window on “Distant Relatives,” the new full-length collaboration between Nas and Marley. Open cut “As We Enter” finds the pair tag-teaming stanzas. As Nas spits “My man can speak patois/and I can speak rap star,” Marley drops the line “from Queens to Kingston/gunshot we use and govern the kingdom.”
The “rhythm piranhas” – as Marley dubs the duo – started toying with the idea of producing an EP to benefit school in Africa back in 2008, but the project grew as it progressed. Predictably, the lyrics find both vocalists working in a political vein, which is not a radical departure for either.
Nas shines in this environment, weaving street parables into Marley’s global paradigm. Marley, on the other hand, brings a sense of optimism lacking on most hip hop albums. His influence permits Nas to deliver his most straightforward and affirming lines this since “I Can” on the track “Count Your Blessings.”
Although “Distant Relatives” celebrates Africa, the only musician from the continent to appear on the record in person is K’naan, who blesses two tracks. The reset of the album captures the energy and rhythm of the motherland through samples that include Ethiopian jazz, Angolan singing and the Malian couple Amadou and Miriam. And while the pulse is definitely (defiantly?) African, the concrete jungle of Marley’s Jamaica and Nas’ New York are never far.
The only time the third world spell is broken comes on the song “My Generation.” Lil Wayne’s appearance on the track is passable, but feels like a ponderous attempt at mainstream radio play. The most egregious offender, however, is Joss Stone, ruins a decent production with an over-the-top delivery that seems to parody an American Idol wannabe.
Despite the title, the worlds of rap and reggae aren’t really that distant. Afrika Bambaata and Run-DMC dipped into the reggae in rap’s first decade. KRS-One later incorporated reggae into his 1987 hit “The Bridge is Over,” which famously dissed Nas’ home borough. The decade would also find KRS-One collaborating with Sly and Robbie and Shabba Ranks.
Likewise, Marley is no stranger to hip hop. His raspy voice has always worked better in a spoken cadence than in his limited singing range. Both of his major-label albums bounce with an urban beat. “Welcome to Jamrock,” the Grammy-winning album that fostered his meeting with Nas, also featured a track with The Roots MC Black Thought. In addition, Marley’s brother Stephen Marley, who produced two of the cuts on “Distant Strangers” oversaw a remix album of his father’s songs that featured The Roots, Chuck D of Public Enemy, Guru and former Fugee Lauryn Hill, who is married to Rohan Marley, another of Bob Marley’s sons.
“Distant Relatives” flattens this musical landscape. It is an ambitious project with global aims, not only musically, but lyrically, dealing with humanity, morality and messy nuances of emotion like greed and humility that can easily come across as clichés or preaching. Few artists have the vision to imagine a project of such scope, let alone pull it off.
Marley and Nas teamed up because they wanted to respond to the disasters in Haiti, Somalia and Darfur. Their intentions should be appreciated. The results should be celebrated.