PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Music

Nas & Damian Marley: Distant Relatives

Nas and Junior Gong reunite, this time for a full album whose proceeds will benefit children in Africa.


Nas & Damian Marley

Distant Relatives

Label: Universal Republic/Def Jam
US Release Date: 2010-05-18
UK Release Date: 2010-05-17
Amazon
iTunes

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.

7

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Music

Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.

Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.