Review Summary: Maybe they really are related.
Between the respective discographies of Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley and Nasty Nasir Jones, one would find multiple commercial hits, award-winning performances, and an overall shaping of music in general. After all, Nas helped define hip-hop with Illmatic
, and Damian Marley extended reggae to his ragamuffin style with his Grammy-winning Welcome to Jamrock
. However, when we last looked at these two artists, much was left to ponder. After all, Nas released his controversial, attention-grabbing, but eventually untitled album in 2008, achieving success on the charts, but not with many fans. And Damian Marley, well, it’s been five years since his last release. In fact, in the past three years, the only work I’ve heard from Marley has been his guest performances on a K’naan album and his brother, Stephen Marley’s album, both of whom now provide performances on Nas and Damian's work. But despite all past success or failure, in May of 2010, Nas and Damian released Distant Relatives
Needless to say, coming from different styles and different parts of the globe would generate the concern that a collaboration of these two would not flow together easily. Quite on the contrary, we first saw Marley and Nas work together in 2005 on a Damian Marley track, Road to Zion
, where Nas provided the verse that took the song from listenable to memorable. After a collaboration like Road to Zion
, two years working in a studio, the background of each artist, and the hype generated across the internet for this collaboration, expectations were set very high. To top everything else off, Nas claims (and I paraphrase) that every purchase of this album will help to build schools in Africa.
Good cause? Check.
Within the first five seconds of the album, the tone for the entire album is set. As We Enter
provides a jazz sample from composer Mulatu Astatke and fluid exchange of verses between Nas and Marley. The up-tempo and flawless conversation the two artists create is a wake-up call. These artists have come prepared; the samples have been carefully chosen, the lyrics are thought-provoking, and a quick-look at the personnel for the album shows that meticulous care was given to develop the sound that melds the hip-hop institution Nas survives in, the umbrella of reggae that Damian Marley has shaped, and the tribal African music that motivated the two artists to come together. Jr. Gong handled most of the production for the album, but Distant Relatives
is no mere hip-hop album full of samples and beats. Many tracks, such as the raw Strong Will Continue
were recorded with a live band behind Nas and Marley. Each track adds a sound unheard previously, and every track continues to build on one another. The progression, between fast and slow, sad and joy, high and low, creates an important contrast. This hip-hop and reggae fusion proves both the uplifting theme of reggae and the downcast ideals that are delivered throughout Nas’s previous works. The continual addition of new sounds, from the choir in In His Own Words
to the high-pitched Amadou and Mariam sample in Patience
, the music is always changing. One key portion of the music Distant Relatives
is the fact that the in many songs, though the drums and bass behind the vocalists is constant throughout a track, for each new verse the beat is modified slightly to give each artist his own vibe for his portion of the song. Little additions like the palm-muted guitars that appear half-way through Strong Will Continue
, the invasion of bongos in Tribes at War
, or even the overdrive guitar that kicks in with Nas’s verse in Count Your Blessings
accentuate the fact that the time and care given to each track on Distant Relatives were meant to make the message of this album everlasting.
The music on Distant Relatives
sets the stage for the vocals, which are delivered with a purpose. Through the recording process of the album, Nas saw the birth of his first son and the divorce to his wife. These topics are dispersed in the music, such as the hint to his son’s birth (July 21, 2009) in Leaders
. The final verse he adds to the fading music in Strong Will Continue
may be his most powerful to date. Damian Marley, though hard to understand through his ragamuffin style, delivers verses of his own that match up against Nas’s. In addition to just rapping, however, Jr. Gong extends his talent to singing, as heard through the choruses of Count Your Blessings
and Africa Must Wake Up
. The versatility is just another factor that makes the album work so well. The guests on the album each prove themselves worthy of their spots. Even commercial hip-hop “king” Lil Wayne brings a surprise of his own in My Generation
: he actually raps on topic with the rest of the song. K’naan, the obvious choice as a guest on an album about African poverty and possibility, brings his Somalian heritage to the table, chipping in two verses on the album, on arguably the albums two best tracks, Tribes at War
and Africa Must Wake Up
. On the latter, he gives a full verse in Somalian which, though incomprehensible to most, is fun to sing along with for no reason other than the fun sound. On a side note for the casual listener, the English translation of K’naan’s verse can be found on the Distant Relatives
website. Also, Damian Marley’s Rasta rapping style does become comprehensible after many listens and time. This fact helps make the album better and better with sequential listens, because it becomes more understandable, and with it, more enjoyable.
Taking the task of creating a charity, collaborative album is no easy task. The product could easily come off as corny, phoned in, lazy, or attract multiple other negative associations. By blending the different styles and sounds, yet still portraying the strengths of each individual artist, Nas and Damian Marley have effectively created the album they strove for. On top of the proceeds to Africa, this album does not bear the burden of foul language and constant sex references that plague many hip-hop albums (including Nas's previous works.) Dispear
is the one track that veers from the otherwise clean album, and the words pass by so quickly they will easily be missed among the fast-paced rhyming found in the song. The only thing keeping Distant Relatives
from a being a ‘classic’ is time. We will see if Nas and Damian keep their word to help build African schools with this album’s proceeds, and we will also have to see if the album has a lasting effect. But, I have no worries, because the two musicians have worked for two years to create something that does not fit in the discography of either artist alone. According to Nas and Jr. Gong, Africa is the promised land and can be saved, and these two artists seek to be the stepping stones to accelerate this process. Therefore, this musical masterpiece begs the question: Are Nasir Jones and Damian Marley actually distant relatives?