Five years ago, Nasty Nas and Damian “Junior Gong” Marley hooked up for “Road to Zion”, a one-off on Marley’s debut LP, Welcome to Jamrock, that clearly towered over everything on the album but the title track. Over a dreamy Ella Fitzgerald sample, the two dropped the sort of Pan-African philosophizing that Nas has long been known for, but they did it in a very natural and humble way that betrayed a strong union between the two performers in both inspiration and purpose. The lead single on Distant Relatives, “As We Enter”, provides a strong contrast musically with its uptempo tribal propulsion and back-and-forth verses from the two artists, but in every other way signals more blazing chemistry.
What makes “As We Enter” work so well is that both artists work with their message, but neither compromises himself for it. This isn’t always the case. “Patience” has received plenty of flack in a post-“Miracles” world, but it deserves the treatment considering the platitudes and misguided attempts at provoking hard thought from its audience. “In His Own Words” uses similar lines of questioning, but not as clumsily thanks to Nas’ verses, and “Strong Will Continue” is similarly didactic until Nas’ final verse. Elsewhere, like “Count Your Blessings” or “Land of Promise”, Nas seems unable to find a home: it’s a feeling that pervades about half of the album, which is unfortunate given the chemistry on “As We Enter” and “Road to Zion”. Rarely if ever do the two reach those heights on the rest of Distant Relatives.
Junior Gong’s production also comes off as heavy-handed much of the time. “Strong Will Continue” is full of signifiers that the track is important and capital BIG, but there’s not much substance from either artist until Marley gives up on the weak guitars and bastard Untitled-style synths (he tries his best to hide them, seemingly uncomfortable with them himself), then gives Nas a lonely violin and allows him to go off on a tangent about his ex-wife, Kelis. The verse has very little to do with the album’s message and stands as Nas’ lone ego moment (sans the unexplainable “there’s only one Nas, y’all” on “Count Your Blessings”). As a bonus, it’s also the best verse on the tape and a hint that Nas could drop a vicious album in the vein of Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear if he put the time into it. But this verse jars Distant Relatives out of its focus.
“Leaders” works much better, as Stephen Marley joins in and the three keep themselves reigned in, exploring the meaning of leadership in black and African communities across the world. Like “In His Own Words”, another song featuring the Marley brother, and “Count Your Blessings”, it’s the moments when the two pick a theme and don’t overanalyze it that they find the best groove. Marley consistently provides stylish choruses, at times to the point they become the song at the expense of Nas (shades of B.o.B.‘s latest there), but he can’t always keep the backing music up to par. It’s also worth noting that, like Welcome to Jamrock, much of Marley’s message can get lost in the patois and accent. He’s certainly not the best vocalist in dancehall, though it’s a surprise his singing is so much better than his rapping here. It was the other way around five years ago.
While I can find a lot of things worth complaining about, eventually I think it’s important to declare that Distant Relatives works in spite of them. It’s one of the best charity albums made in quite some time. It rarely panders to its audience (though, again, “Patience” treats us something like children, and “In His Own Words” may be an elementary school sing-a-long). Both artists, particularly Nas, display a focus that has escaped each in the years since they last collaborated. The collision between hip-hop and reggae is a little overblown, since Marley spends a lot more time making hip-hop and Afrobeat-style tracks, but the alchemy between Nas and Junior Gong’s voice is obvious and engenders a strong sense of unity. Distant Relatives is also an album that doesn’t inspire much if any use of a skip button, though with quite a few six-minute tracks, it can feel fairly exhausting and get a little blurry for less attentive listeners.
For hip-hop fans, Nas finds a more appropriate and musically satisfying way to express his views from Untitled, and for casual audiences a great reminder is given that reggae artists are still very overlooked by world audiences when it comes to both political and popular music. Besides “Strong Will Continue”, “Patience”, and “My Generation” there’s not a dud in the bunch, and even those songs aren’t awful. The message is strong and the unified vision is obvious. Distant Relatives will be ubiquitous in many people’s summer soundtrack, nagging imperfections and all, and might even enlighten some folks in the process. Music geeks will find plenty to pick apart, but the general population has no reason to ignore this release.