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 (Above: Damian Marley and Nas perform at the Beaumont Club in Kansas City, Mo. on June 26, 2009.)

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.

Keep reading:

Review: The Original Wailers

Jazz, hip hop collide to celebrate landmark album

Review: Toots and the Maytals, the Wailers

Review: Bela Fleck’s Africa Project

Review: Sly and Robbie

Album review – “Stax: The Soul of Hip-Hop”

Review: Lee “Scratch” Perry

Jay-Z – “The Blueprint 3″

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cover-front-chris-cornell-scream-2009

By Joel Francis

In the two months since Chris Cornell’s latest album, “Scream,” appeared on store shelves it has been mocked by Trent Reznor, bashed by critics and ignored by fans.

There’s only one problem with this: the album isn’t all bad.

This is not to say that “Scream” is a masterpiece that will make fans forget “Superunknown;” it is a flawed album. But the biggest problem lies not with the album, but Cornell’s fans. The hard rockers who grew up with Cornell in Soundgarden and backed by Rage Against the Machine in Audioslave are unwilling to give his collaboration with hip hop producer Timbaland a chance.

Timbaland made his name in the ‘90s working with Missy Elliott and Jay-Z. He cemented his radio-/club-friendly reputation this decade through collaborations with Justin Timberlake, Pussycat Dolls. None of these names are likely to impress Cornell’s hard rockin’ fan base.

The album bubbles, shakes and bounces with a consistency that surpasses Timbaland’s 2007 vanity project “Shock Value” and harkens back to his glory days with Elliott. Thanks to inventive interludes, the songs flow from one to the next, never letting the energy or mood flag.

And for a dance album, Cornell’s songwriting is strong. It’s hard to imagine many club bangers – “Hey Ya” aside – working well stripped to acoustic guitar and vocals, but it’s not difficult to envision Cornell performing “Ground Zero,” “Time” or “Long Gone” unplugged.

If this had been a Madonna album the public couldn’t buy (or download) enough copies. When Lil Wayne straps on a guitar and he’s praised for expanding his sound and showing artistic growth. Why can’t rockers do the same?

“Scream” is far from perfect. Lyrics have never been Cornell’s strong suit and he comes embarrassingly short several times on this album. Next to the rhythm, the chorus is the most important element of a dance song, and Cornell flunks badly on “Part of Me.” “That bitch ain’t a part of me” repeated eight time with multi-tracked and auto-tuned vocals is the most egregious crime, but hardly the only offender. At other times, you can imagine Cornell and Timbaland standing in awe over a track they’ve created only to realize they need to add a melody and lyrics.

The dirty little secret is that Chris Cornell is the Roger Daltrey of his generation. Like Daltrey, he is one of the most powerful, dynamic and expressive voices in rock. Unfortunately, also like Daltrey, he’s only as good as the guitarists backing him. Supported by Kim Thayil in Soundgarden or Tom Morello in Audioslave, Cornell was great. Timbaland is obviously not a full-time replacement for Thayil or Morello, but he was a bold and inventive choice for foil on this project.

Although “Scream” is a pop album, it is not a naked bid for crossover success. Judging by the studied calculation of Cornell’s previous two solo albums, he knew the risks he was taking. Although “Scream” will be too rocky for the clubbers and too clubby for the rockers, it is an interesting leap that deserves a better fate and a second listen.

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The last time The Daily Record watched a complete Grammy Awards show, “O Brother Where Art Thou?” won Album of the Year. This year, though, we got suckered in by the promise of seeing Radiohead. (Have they won a Grammy? Wikipedia says yes.) This presented the perfect opportunity to do one of those running diaries like Bill Simmons does for ESPN. We not may be as successful, but the official wife of The Daily Record was glad her husband’s snarky comments were bypassing her ears and going straight online, where she could ignore them more easily. Enjoy!

7:00 U2’s new song sounds like Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

7:02 The lyrics to their new song “Get On Your Boots” appear on a large video screen behind the band. I wonder if this is what all the presenters will see on their Teleprompters.

7:09 Whitney Houston comes out to present the award for “Best R&B Album.” Forget Botox – cocaine must be the secret to a younger looking face.

7:10 Seriously, Houston looks like she has been stored in the freezer next to Ted Williams for the last 10 years.

7:12 The Rock is as good a comedian as he is an actor.

7:17 Justin Timberlake and Keith Urban paying tribute to Al Green is like Henry Kissinger and Dick Cheney giving props to Barack Obama.

7:21 First commercial break. High-powered bloggers use this time to make snarky comments about commercials too. Unfortunately, The Daily Record has no corporate sponsorship. We’ll use this time to do glamorous things like take out the trash and recycling, pull stuff together for work tomorrow.

7:26 For a second, I thought Chris Martin was Paul McCartney sitting at his Magical Mystery Tour piano.

7:28 Let the haters hate; Jay-Z is still great.

7:29 How come Coldplay get to play two songs? I wonder if Joe Satriani will come out. Probably not.

7:30 Coldplay’s Beatles motif is reinforced with their Sgt. Pepper jackets.

7:33 Although representatives insist that all Grammy performers will not perform to a backing track like Bruce Springsteen did at last week’s Super Bowl, you have to be suspicious. It’s not like the music industry is a bastion of integrity.

7:34 Why does “country” singer Carrie Underwood rock harder than “rock stars” Coldplay?

7:35 I have no idea what Carrie is singing. I think it’s something about how long it took to get her legs waxed. Damn them’s some shiny gams!

7:36 Carrie’s guitar player looks like Lita Ford’s daughter.

7:38 Why does Sheryl Crow, 46, look younger than LeAnn Rimes, 26?

7:39 Congratulations, you’ve won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. We will now honor you with a 15 second black and white video clip. Why not let the recipients perform?

7:48 Hey, Coldplay just acknowledged my Sgt. Pepper’s joke!

7:49 Man, Kid Rock really, really likes Bob Seger.

7:58 Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus are performing together for the first time, but they won’t let the guys playing acoustic guitars and bass onstage with them.

7:59 It’s really bugging me that they won’t let the band perform onstage. What were they told? “OK, here’s the deal. You four will sing backing vocals, provide rhythm support, fine, you’ll carry the whole thing – but we don’t actually want anyone to see you do it.” Was there not enough crawlspace under the stage to stuff them in there?

8:02 A seated Tylor Swift just said “If you’re 19, or even older, it’s still a thrill to stand on the Grammy stage.” Man, she is going to have a long time to be depressed.

8:03 Robert Plant and Allison Krauss just won AWARD. But even better news is that they’re working on a new album together.

8:05 This is why we don’t need a Whitney Houston comeback. Jennifer Hudson is both more talented and a more substantive person.

8:15 What the? Stevie Wonder is jamming with the Jonas Brothers. Half the audience is wondering who the old dude is and everyone else is wondering what he’s doing playing with them. Thing is, it doesn’t sound half bad. Then again, I’m a sucker for Stevie’s vocoder trick.

8:16 Any excuse to hear “Superstition” is a good thing. I’ll never buy a Jonas Brothers album, but I thank them for this moment.

8:17 Seriously, you know your songs kick butt when Disney-sponsored tweener heart-throbs can’t screw them up. Not even Celine Dion could ruin this moment.

8:19 I hear Blink 182’s next album is going to be a tribute to Def Leppard.

8:20 Do Coldplay have to mention the Beatles every time they take the podium? Pretty soon Ringo will be onstage with them refusing to sign autographs.

8:27 Don’t forget, Craig Ferguson writes all his own material.

8:29 Am I the last person on Earth to be hearing “I Kissed A Girl” for the first time right now?

8:30 Why is Katy Perry dancing in Carmen Miranda’s headdress? This segment must be sponsored by Chiquita.

8:31 Am I the only person on Earth to feel like he hasn’t missed anything by not hearing “I Kissed A Girl” until now?

8:32 I don’t know the song Kanye West is doing with Estelle, but “808s and Heartbreaks” is really growing on me.

8:33 Kanye is taking this ’80s fixation a bit too far. Next year he’s going to come out wearing a Huxtable sweater.

8:41 I don’t care how long he keeps wearing it, that earring is never going to look natural on Morgan Freeman.

8:45 Sean “Puffy” Combs, Natalie Cole and Herbie Hancock are on hand to present “Record of the Year.” One of these things is not like the other (in a good way).

8:46 Natalie Cole’s dress looks like a last-minute compromise from the outfit Lil Kim wore on the MTV awards a few years back.

8:47 Plant and Krauss just won again. Robert Plant might have the most successful post-supergroup career of all time. OK, maybe Paul McCartney – but Plant’s taken more chances.

8:53 They just gave a Lifetime Achievement Award to Dean Martin. I guess we now know why they don’t have these winners perform, but why’d the take him so long for Martin to get this award? He’s been dead for awhile, but he certainly had the sales and popularity when he was alive. Maybe next year they’ll finally get around to honoring Bing Crosby.

8:54 I’m not sure why M.I.A. had to secede the stage so quickly. How cool would it have been if Mick Jones and Paul Simonon came out to do “Paper Planes” with her?

8:55 Kanye, Jay-Z, T.I. and Lil Wayne’s performance together is being called a “historic hip hop summit.” The tour kicks off next month in Yalta.

8:57 M.I.A.’s polka-dot pregnancy outfit is sponsored by Buddy Guy’s guitar.

9:00 I can’t believe I’ve sat through two hours of this show … and still have 90 minutes to go.

9:01 If I were going to have Dave Grohl drum with Paul McCartney I’d give him something a little meatier than “I Saw Her Standing There.” Maybe “Band on the Run” or “Helter Skelter.” I’m just saying.

9:10 Feed just went out as John Mayer was accepting an award. I guess my TV isn’t much of a fan either.

9:11 Jay Mohr and LL Cool J is one of the most awkward pairings of the night. Then again, Jay Morh and anyone is an awkward arrangement.

9:15 Sugarland and Adele aren’t really performing “together for the first time” as promised, but “one right after another.” Eh.

9:17 Oh, here’s Sugarland. She added that one essential line at the end of the song.

9:23 Gwyenth Paltrow is wearing a mirror ball. Dance party!

9:24 Radiohead is performing with the USC Marching Trojans. Man, first those guys get to play with Fleetwood Mac and now they’re backing up Radiohead. I wonder which was more rewarding.

9:25 Someday, future generations will worship Radiohead like we celebrate the Beatles.

9:27 Is it still Radiohead when it’s just Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood? Survey says, who cares? Radiohead in any form is better than anything else we’ve seen tonight.

9:28 OK, better than everything except Carrie Underwood’s legs – but I’m still not buying her album.

9:30 If you are still reading this, you are officially my new best friend. Please leave a comment to receive a special prize.

9:34 Justin Timberlake is performing in a coat and scarf. How did he know snow was in our forecast?

9:35 The stocking cap on T.I.’s head looks like a reservoir tip.

9:36 I don’t think switching back and forth between two distinct songs should count as collaboration. It’s more like a musical debate where the listener always loses.

9:38 Recording Academy president Neil Portnow rejected the traditional tirade against music piracy to talk about MusiCares and promote a Secretary of the Arts cabinet position.

9: 42 Portnow is done, but I’m kinda bummed he didn’t bring up piracy. I had a great line to use when he did: “Recording Academy president Neil Portnow is still talking about music piracy. This guy is slower than Rapidshare.”

9:44 Not even Smokey Robinsons sings the Four Tops as well as Levi Stubbs. Rest in peace, Levi.

9:45 It would be cool if the producers rounded up the remaining Funk Brothers as backing musicians for this Four Tops tribute.

9:52 Neil Diamond is singing “Sweet Caroline” and millions of Red Sox fans are crying because their season hasn’t started yet. Pitchers and catchers report in less than a week, boys.

9:54 Am I the only one that finds it kind of sad that Diamond’s expansive catalog has been reduced to just one song? And that “Sweet Caroline” is that song? It’s like if people only remembered Bob Dylan for “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn).”

9:59 Paying tribute to Bo Diddley are Buddy Guy, B.B. King, John Mayer and Keith Urban (because you know if any two performers have influenced Urban’s style and career its Al Green and Bo Diddley). Best rhythm in rock and roll.

10:00 I make that joke earlier about Buddy Guy’s guitar and he shows up here playing a gold top Les Paul. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him rock a since his days on Vanguard.

10:08 Allen Toussaint is supposed to appear with Lil Wayne with Robin Thicke. I bet those two would be surprised to learn that Toussaint has written more hits than both of them combined.

10:10 I wonder why the producers haven’t rolled out one of those “for the first time ever” duets between Thicke and Timberlake? Probably because no one could tell them apart.

10:11 Allen Toussaint with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Terence Blanchard falls just short of topping Radiohead for best musical moment of the night – but it’s close. No American city makes more consistently fun music than New Orleans (although a case could be made for Memphis).

10:14 Will.I.Am just congratulated Obama. Who could have seen that coming? Next year, Will.I.Am will receive a record number of Grammy nominations for his album “Obamania: Songs About Barack Obama, Because I Love Barack Obama by Will.I.Am (for Barack Obama).”

10:24 Robert Plant and Allison Krauss are performing with T-Bone Burnett. Krauss’ hair keeps blowing back. Now I know why Justin Timberlake was wearing a coat and scar earlier.

10:25 I love “Raising Sand” as much as the next person, but that album came out in 2007. Why are the Grammys acting like it’s a new release?

10:26 The Grammys operate on such a loopy nomination calendar that a band’s previous and forthcoming albums can both be eligible at the same time.

10:27 The producers rightly made a big deal of T-Bone being on stage, but there was no mention of Buddy Miller holding down rhythm guitar. Therefore, I’d like to take this moment to give Buddy props for being a spectacular musician.

10:28 Album of the Year goes to “Raising Sand.” If it wasn’t going to be “In Rainbows” this is where it should have gone. (Seriously, does anyone else find it odd that both of these albums were released 16 months ago?)

10:30 Robert Plant started his career in 1968. You can fill a matchbook with a list of all tonight’s performers and honorees we’ll still be talking about 40 years from now.

10:32 Stevie Wonder is playing us home. See you in seven years, Grammys!

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