Nas & Damian Marley - Distant Relatives
Record Label: Universal/Def Jam
Release Date: May 18, 2010
When Nas first mentioned a collaboration project with Damian Marley, early impressions were muddied with skepticism. The Queensbridge rapper met his fair share of criticism with 2008’s Untitled, which was met with a polarized and completely average general consensus. More recently, the onslaught of an extremely public and draining divorce for the last year has left Nas discouraged. He needed to release something significant in a hip-hop landscape that has put veteran emcees on the backburner to accommodate the newly appointed forefront of freshman rappers.
Nas and Damian Marley first hooked up on “Road to Zion,” from 2005’s Welcome to Jamrock. The track found the two artists and their respective genres coalesce naturally, so the Distant Relatives project wasn’t as far-fetched as it may have suggested. However, an entire album’s worth of engaging and relevant material would be real kicker. As one could guess, reggae and hip-hop haven’t shared the limelight since the early 90s, and a collaboration of such is virtually unheard of by most.
The plight of Africa remains as the most recurring theme on the record. Their underwhelming social, political and spiritual oppressions are all addressed to some extent, from the school systems (“Tribal War”) to the political figureheads (“Leaders”). At times, the pair resorts to a relatively preachy demeanor (“Land of Promise,” “Patience”) which is as distracting as one would imagine – easily the album’s biggest pitfall. On the flip-side, Nas’ revisits the apex of his lyricism. “Friends” embraces the bitterness of his past, but in the closing minute of “Strong Will Continue,” Nas touches down on his divorce with Kelis, something that’s weighed heavy on both his conscience and wallet, giving us one of the most jeering verses from the emcee in some time.
“As We Enter” is as perfect an opener one could imagine. The cut is full of the Nas street bravado we’ve heard for the past decade and Marley’s lauded rapping abilities, and finds the two trading barbs with one another – a groovy and effortless head-bobber. Similarly, “Nah Mean” embraces the boom-bap of Nas’ early years and blows smoke through the burroughs of New York City, where he once reigned.
Stephen Marley manned the boards for this project as the executive producer, as he has with Damian’s previous ventures. Marley managed to create a soundscape that doesn’t breach either artist’s style, while incorporating authentic African samples and drum patterns. Guest spots were also carefully placed. K’naan and Dennis Brown are none too unfamiliar with the reggae leanings of the Marley clan. However, the Joss Stone and Lil Wayne collaboration on “My Generation” is an obvious sore thumb. While Stone’s overbearing gospel agitates, Weezy manages to relay a verse of insight and relevancy to the song’s overall disposition.
Distant Relatives’ probability of commercial success is few and far between. Outside of “As We Enter” and “Nah Mean,” the bulk of the record has little to no chance of seeing the Billboard charts. However, both artists are preceded by musically inclined fathers and have built dedicated followings in their own right, which should undoubtedly prevail. Ultimately, the end result was surprisingly fulfilling and enjoyable, and the duo managed to create an album that could serve as a generational bridge for hip-hop and reggae fans alike.