In terms of superstar collaborations, it doesn’t get much bigger than this. Nasir Jones and Damian ‘JR. Gong’ Marley have already proved themselves an electrifying duo on the mournful ‘Road to Zion’ – a particularly stand-out track on Marley’s 2005 album Welcome To Jamrock. Brought together by a mixture of mutual respect and a shared interest in Africa and the roots of Hip-Hop and Reggae, Distant Relatives brings a wondrously smooth hybrid of reggae and rap in which both artists seem to find their stride with incredible ease.
Opening track and first single ‘As We Enter’ is an appropriate introduction to the album; the pair go lyric for lyric over a backing that sits somewhere between the livewire reggae of Toots and the Maytals and the sort of hazy hip-hop that Nas made his own back on 1994’s Illmatic. Interestingly, the track contains the most rap-star posturing in what is otherwise an album embroiled in spirituality and humanitarian concerns, but fairly stupid lines like “I’ve got the guns/ I’ve got the Ganja /and we can blaze it up on your block if you want to” still somehow manage to sound credible through the world-weary yet firm voices of Marley and Nas.
Indeed it’s the way that Damian Marley’s thoughtful, impassioned Rastafarian polemics mesh effortlessly with what seem to be some of Nas’ most remarkable lyricism since his infamous Jay-Z ‘diss’ track ‘Ether’ that makes this album a truly remarkable listen. ‘Tribes at War’ features a sorrowful Marley repeat the lyric “Everyone deserve to earn/ and every child deserve to learn” with the same sort of force and poignancy his father had mastered decades previously. Nas equally doesn’t seem to have wilted in the years since his searing debut. Whilst he has often been criticized for never really following up Illmatic with a release of equal quality, Distant Relatives sees Nas raising goosebumps across nearly every track, like the reflective lines on ‘Strong Will Continue’, where he asks – “Do you deceive yourself and let your ego swell / and disregard those who most need your help?”. These sort of political and cultural analyses manage the remarkable feat of never erring on the side of preaching or patronising, instead making for compelling listening as both artists delve into a range of moral and spirtual subjects. It’s not all doom and gloom though, tracks like ‘My Generation’, (with it’s warm Obama-esque refrain of “My generation will make a change / This generation will make a change”) and ‘Count Your Blessings’ offer seriously euphoric escapism, making it extremely difficult not to get caught up in the warm sentiments of change and progress that litter the album.
Tracks like ‘Nah Mean’ shine in part to the firm, part-reggae part hip-hop backings, where the energy and attitude of hip-hop blurs smoothly into the sun-bleached sounds of Kingston. These sort of backings work far more effectively than the sort of guitar driven reggae-pop that ‘In His Own Words’ offers up, even if as a track both the former and the latter ‘Strong Will Continue’ are driven by Marley’s plaintiff cry and Nas’ confident lyrical hooks. Some of these more pop-driven backings lack the immediacy of the energetic ‘As We Enter’, but not once are Nas or Marley’s lyricisms or delivery compromised by a backing. ‘Dispear’ offers a jerky, syncopated taste of African music, bustling with both lyrical and rhythmic weight.
Distant Relatives is more than just a simple hybrid of rap and reggae. The two genres are near inseparable throughout the length of the album, combined effortlessly not only with unique vocals from both Nas and Damian Marley, but with touches and nuances from genres including dancehall, pop, rock and soul. With guest appearances from the excellent K’Naan and the ubiquitous (albeit less so after being recently incarcerated) Lil’ Wayne, the album never runs the risk of repetition or lack of variety . Offering us the rare treat of two timeless artists operating at their absolute peak, Distant Relatives is a blend of rightfully self-assured vocals and eclectic range of genre-bending backings that takes us from Africa to Brooklyn via Kingston. A duet between such stellar artists in a treat in itself, but a whole album? Well, that’s the definition of essential listening.
Distant Relatives is out now on Universal/Island. You can stream the album on Spotify here.