20 May, 2010@8:21 pm
This is a highly personal observation, and it will no doubt be blasphemy to some, but there’s something about reggae music that’s kind of…irritating. It’s a genre with limited range and it seems to be only produced by guys named Marley. You wonder, doesn’t anyone from this family want to get into another line of work? I guess when Dad’s coattails are that big, you might as well grab on for the ride. Be honest with yourself–how many reggae albums do you actually have in your collection? Maybe you’ve got a Bob Marley greatest hits CD buried in there somewhere?
Okay, so even though a lot of heads have a fleeting relationship with reggae, we’ve all had some affection for it because of it being part of the roots of hip hop. We may cringe a little deep down inside when a KRS-One or a Phife Dawg breaks into their rasta routine, but we nod and smile. It’s just a diversion from the main attraction.
Then along comes a full length collaboration with one of hip hop’s all time great MCs, Nas, and… one of the Marley brothers. Is it the one who married Lauryn Hill? Nah, that’s Rohan. It’s not Stephen either, though he did much of the production on Distant Relatives, a charity album that pairs Nas with Grammy winner and Bob’s youngest son, Damian Marley. The two of them are building on a previous collaboration, “Road to Zion,” and donating the money from the album to build a school in the Congo, maybe. Nas does have a pretty hefty tax bill to pay off.
In any case, true to the idea of “distant relatives,” we must confront the intersection of these very different, but linked, musical cousins.
On “Strong Will Continue,” a sort of inspirational anthem about moving forward and staying focused in life, we find out Nas is also weighed down by some child support payments right now: “How in the hell am I supposed to stay comfy/when I pay child support, alimony monthly?”
Nas drops some half-cocked “knowledge” on Distant Relatives. There’s vague talk of trouble in Africa and injustices to humanity, but it’s not always exactly clear what he’s talking about. Nas, after all, has always been better as a chronicler of social problems than a commenter on them, and he demonstrates this admirably on the thoughtful, “Leaders” featuring Stephen Marley and “Friends.”
Generally, Nas sounds great over the live instrumentation and reggae-tinged production here, which comes off sounding fresh in many cases. The lead single “As We Enter” and “Nah Mean” both bang. His lyrics aren’t always as dead-on as they have been on his most incisive songs, but the voice really stands out against these backdrops.
If you’re a hip hop purist, you might find yourself wishing this was more of a Nas album with some help from a couple of the Marley brothers, but Damian is very much a true partner on Distant Relatives. He often complements Nas well and on the album’s best songs he infuses the rapper, who has a tendency to drift from time to time, with an urgency in his vocal performance (check out “Land of Promise” featuring Dennis Brown).
If you truly love both reggae and hip hop, this should be a really satisfying listen, at least from a musical standpoint. The themes of social injustice and “we are the world” pathos may grow tiresome, depending on the mood you’re in. But if the wars in Afghanistan or genocide in Darfur have been on your mind and you want to listen to a hip hop/reggae collabo without feeling guilty, this will work.
The real low light is “My Generation” (featuring Lil’ Wayne), an insipid, children singing on the chorus, clap your hands gospel-ish track with Damian Marley rhyming a bunch of words together that rhyme, but don’t do much else. Economy/astronomy/anomaly. Uh huh. “My Generation” sounds like a leftover outtake from the Obama campaign.
We have to give Nas some credit on the big picture front. For a while now, he’s been a much more mature artist, who seems less interested in chasing the next big hit or trend, and more concerned with making the kind of music he thinks he should be making. Sure, he misses the mark occasionally, but with Street’s Disciple, the underrated and prophetic Hip Hop is Dead and the untitled “N word” album, he’s put together a very respectable, charged body of work in this most recent stage of his career.
Distant Relatives is a side project and shouldn’t be looked at as much more than that. But it’s not bad, even for the closeted reggae-haters among us.
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