On their new record, Distant Relatives, Nas and Damian Marley are all about fusion. Nas brings the vehemence of the streets and a harsh realism about the state of mankind. “Junior Gong” Marley brings a mellower mood, with faith in Jah and universal brotherhood. Together, the Queens-Kingston duo, who previously collaborated on Road To Zion, portray a dark world where there’s still room to hope.
As expected, the new record fuses hip-hop and reggae styles, or as Nas describes the collaboration: “My man can speak patois/And I can speak rap star.” Marley does the bulk of the introductions and all of the refrains, while Nas fills out the verses with rhymes. The backing tracks are a pastiche of funk rhythms, half-time reggae, and African percussion, with the occasional sirens and sharpening swords as sound effects. Other cameos include the ubiquitous Li’l Wayne and the Canadian-Somali poet and rapper K’Naan. Overall, the fusion of sounds and styles elevates Marley from second generation status and benefits Nas, whose records sometimes need a beats disciple.
Nas and Damian Marley, As We Enter
Both MCs embrace their heritage in their lyrics. Nas brings the guns, drugs, benzes, and c-notes that have been hip-hop staples for decades, and name checks revolutionary icons Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, and Geronimo. For his part, Marley references Zion, Babylon, and Rastafarianism, and tips his hat to Shaka Zulu and Burning Spear. And as Nas spells out, the title Distant Relatives refers to both men’s African ancestry and the universal origins of humanity. “We all come from one place,” he says. “We’re all one family.”
Nas and Damian Marley, Nah Mean
Still, the power of the partnership stems from their differences. Marley praise the virtues of friendship; Nas calls out fake friends. Marley envisions the Promised Land; Nas pictures the apocalypse. Marley praises black leaders; Nas drops the Jena Six. The lyrical dialectic is underscored by the differences in their voices and flows. Nas brings hardness and verbal dexterity, a guy who “balances the streets and the theories of collegiate literature.” Marley is smoother, with dance hall intonation tinged with echoes of his father Bob, who died when he was two years old. (His older brother Stephen, who sings on two tracks, sounds like a reincarnation of the reggae legend.)
Nas and Damian Marley, Dispear
Throughout, Distant Relatives looks to the past, with an eye to the future. In “Promised Land,” Marley imagines a world in which Africa reclaims its cultural heritage and becomes the new America. “My generation” opens with a children’s choir and declares “Our Generation will make a change.” In “Count My Blessings,” Nas rhymes about the birth of his son, whom he hopes to inspire in the same way that Bob Marley inspired Damian. It’s a long way from the guy who lambasted the schmaltz of “We are the World” and bragged how he would “bang bitches at John Jay/Then catch a matinee”
Indeed, Nas has mellowed somewhat with age. Distant Relatives is virtually profanity-free, a shift from the 2008 album that he wanted to call N*gger, but was ultimately released without a title. (That controversy spawned a feud with Bill O’Reilly and Fox News and landed Nas on the Colbert Report). There is only one verse on Distant Relatives about sexual prowess, and even that is tempered with references to alimony and the hopelessness of affairs with married women. And for all his self-assurance, Nas worries about his longevity, wondering “Am I still relevant as a rapper?” The question makes sense for a 36-year-old on his 10th record in 16 years: a hip-hop eternity. His 1994 debut Illmatic predates the The Notorious B.I.G.’s debut and the best work of Tupac Shakur, technically his contemporaries, but practically members of another generation due to their untimely and violent deaths.
Still, Nas is all about the problems of today: the global recession and Wall Street imbroglios, Shiite bombs, and the poverty and despair that endures in ghettos from America to Africa. At one point, he even calls himself and Marley “Two Obamas.” And the presence of Li’L Wayne suggests that the king of Queensbridge may be ready to pass the torch. But not quite yet. Nas and Marley are on tour this spring and summer, with a New York show July 31 on the Williamsburg Waterfront. Count your blessings.