Nas & Damian Marley – Distant Relatives
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Be honest. When you first heard about the Nas and Damian “Junior Gong” Marley collaboration, you didn’t know what to think. An MC who has had his beat selection scrutinized like no other (sorry, Ras Kass) teaming up with the youngest son of Bob Marley? The artist responsible for Illmatic teaming up with a three-time Grammy winner for his work as a reggae musician. Nasir Jones over reggae beats. It seemed, at least initially, like the project couldn’t possibly deliver.
But we didn’t think of the positives. At least not right away. Both Nas and Junior Gong craft songs questioning the inequality in today’s world; both artists speak out for those who too often don’t have a voice. Both artists are in the upper echelon of their respective genres. And then there was the little matter of Nas over live instrumentation. This I have to hear.
Any apprehension I was feeling towards this product is all but erased on the album’s opening cut. For lack of a better term, “As We Enter” is straight fire. Nas and Damian Marley go back-and-forth over an uptempo production (courtesy of Junior Gong himself). The rap-reggae trade-off is seamless, as the chemistry between the two is evident from the outset. As Nas says, “my man’ll speak patois/And I can speak rap star.”
Marley’s track for “Tribal War”, which features K’Naan, is significantly slower and more in keeping with a traditional reggae sound. Heavy drums, background chanting and Junior Gong’s vocals combine to create the perfect backdrop for two more outstanding lyrical performances. Both Nas and K’Naan touch on heavy topics – and both MCs deliver. It’s an outstanding track that showcases just how effective, dope and powerful the Jones-Marley combo can be.
For most of next track, “Strong Will Continue”, Marley rides the almost pop-reggae beat perfectly, while Nas seems to lag behind (perhaps it’s the preachy vocals in his first verse that create that sensation). That all changes with about one minute left in the track – when Nas unleashes an exceptionally personal verse that is highlighted by his questioning Kelis’ fidelity during their marriage. In light of everything he has experienced this year with his very public divorce, the verse is shocking, but exceptionally well crafted.
Damian’s brother Stephen both guests on and produces “Leaders”, a track that definitely falls in the mature category. The ode to their leaders/heroes/idols deals with both Junior Gong’s and, more specifically, Nasir Jones’ growth as men – and their descriptions of leaders certainly reflects the growth. The production itself is another down tempo track, but Stephen’s singing ties it up nicely. This maturity is evident on the very next track as well. “Friends” is a very traditional reggae track and, as such, Junior Gong rides it like a pro. Not to be outdone, Nas delivers a phenomenal lyrical performance and the code of ethics he addresses in his second verse is fairly straightforward and, for many, accurate.
The album’s first real misstep is “Count Your Blessings”. The production, again courtesy of Junior Gong, is definitely made for the radio – or the newest R&B sensation. While some guitar makes it in for Nas’ verses, the song is forgettable.
On “Dispear”, Junior Gong hooks up a double-time drum pattern and delivers an outstanding performance. Nas’ sped-up style suits the track. He actually sounds quite comfortable with the new delivery. “Land of Promise” features an absolute monster of a bassline that Marley attacks right from the outset. Again, Nas steps his game up to match his collaborator in terms of style and delivery. Unfortunately, the message, at least coming from the artist formerly known as Nasty Nas, is caught up in the show.
Stephen Marley’s second contribution, and guest appearance, “In His Own Words”, is another misstep. The track is just the kind of production that Nas has been attacked for in the past. There’s too much syrup; too much rhythm ‘n’ blues; too much pop. Having said that, Junior Gong sounds very comfortable and confident on the track, but Nas just sounds out of place.
Fortunately for the listener, the memory of the last track is erased with “Nah Mean”. The highlight of the album features the most hip-hop instrumentation of the project and also highlights the lyrical skill of both Junior Gong, who plays nicely on the “Nah Mean” title, and Nas, who matches his co-host stride for stride and introduces some of his street tales/lyrics into the mix.
After the high of “Nah Mean”, the album closes with three sub-par tracks. “Patience,” Stephen Marley’s third contribution to the project, is another track with double-time drums that is dominated by Junior Gong – until the final minute. Unlike “Strong Will Continue”, Nas’ contribution to this song isn’t as noteworthy. “My Generation” suffers from too many elements. The gospel-type chorus courtesy of Joss Stone stands in contrast to the bassline and guitar track that Damian, Nas and Lil Wayne flow on. And don’t even get me started on Lil Wayne – it is as bad as you think it is. “Africa Must Wake Up”, which also features K’Naan, is an ambitious track that contains a lot of instrumentation – and a verse from K’Naan in his native language. But it doesn’t live up to its own ambitions.
The same cannot be said for the album. Distant Relatives is unlike any other project released this year. Quite frankly, it will be unlike anything else released for the next couple of years. That is both a blessing and a curse for the album. The tracks that succeed do so spectacularly; those that do not end up being forgotten or, worse, skipped. Fortunately, the tracks that do succeed outnumber those that don’t – and Distant Relatives is a record that should not be missed by hip-hop fans.