A collaboration that fuses traits with few discernable flaws.
Mike Diver 2010
When Nas confirmed this collaboration with Damian Marley, he mentioned how hip hop and reggae are intertwined. Documented history agrees: hip hop exploded from the projects of New York only after taking inspiration from Jamaican sound system culture. (Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop book of 2005 explores these roots.) This set’s title is a nod to a mutual lineage that stretches back to Africa – its artwork features an image of Menelik II, Emperor of Ethiopia when the country defended itself from invading Italian forces in the late 19th century.
With common backgrounds considered, it’s disappointing that collaborative projects featuring prominent artists from these fields haven’t yet delivered a worthwhile album. Marley’s 2005 release Welcome to Jamrock was a step forwards, but Distant Relatives represents an accomplished attempt to go further, fusing traits with few discernable flaws. It succeeds where previous “Artist A feat. Artist B” efforts have not by allowing space aplenty for its twin protagonists to shine, neither compromising their strengths to play second fiddle while the other steals the spotlight.
Nas has exhibited abilities above your average emcee ever since his sensational Illmatic LP of 1994, commenting on street life without the usual clichés; Marley, meanwhile, has enjoyed commercial success while never glossing over the poverty that blights his Jamaican homeland, introducing a new generation to reggae as more than a background beat to roll a joint to. The fierce integrity exhibited by both could have led to a clashing of egos – but Distant Relatives is the result of a harmonious union, as if these performers had been recording together for several albums.
Nas might not embrace Jah as readily as Rastafarian Marley does – the rapper addresses his scepticism on In His Own Words, neither belittling nor bowing – but the balance between Zion-celebrating lyricism and the real-life observations that accompany hip hop wherever it lays its backwards cap fascinates throughout. Braggadocio is on the back-burner, too – when Marley insists that he’s “badder than Al Pacine” (sic) on Nah Mean, it’s with no reference to petty beef, but to far wider issues of capitalism and colonialism. Nas rhymes about his (then unborn) son on Count Your Blessings, and it’s instances of tenderness like this that lend Distant Relatives a universal appeal that suits its titular statement of intent: that we are all, underneath everything, related.
Being intertwined is one thing, inseparable quite another. Here, the solder never comes unstuck.