Album Remarks & Appraisals:
Distant Relatives is a collaborative studio album by American rapper Nas and Jamaican reggae artist Damian Marley, released May 18, 2010, on Universal Republic and Def Jam Recordings. Production for the album took place during 2008 to 2010 and was handled primarily by Damian Marley and Stephen Marley. Fusing musical elements of hip hop and reggae, Distant Relatives features lyrical themes concerning ancestry, poverty, and the plight of Africa.
The album debuted at number five on the US Billboard 200 chart, selling 57,000 copies in its first week. Upon its release, Distant Relatives received generally positive reviews from most music critics.
"Distant Relatives is the hotly-anticipated reggae / hip hop crossover album that is the result of a long collaboration between Marley and Nas. Although Nas and Damian Marley have toured together in the past (most recently in their 2009 Distant Relatives pre-release tour and again in a Distant Relatives promo show and interview in Washington DC in December), this is their first album together." - Dubandreggae
"At the end of the 1998 Hype Williams film Belly, Nas, playing a reformed outlaw named Sincere, leaves behind the violence and betrayal of his old life and moves to Africa. That's it. Just Africa. We don't learn where in Africa he moves, or what he does when he gets there. We just hear "Africa," like the entire continent is some gigantic symbol for rebirth and redemption. It's meant to be a triumphant ending, but it's frustratingly out-of-reach, missing the specificity that could've made it satisfying. There's something of that same nagging well-intentioned vagueness to Nas' latest venture, as well.
Nas is in a tough spot right now, coming off of a couple of half-successful, attention-grabbing concept albums and a costly, spiteful public divorce. So it makes sense for him to link up with the scion of one of the most universally beloved figures in all of music, making a back-to-basics move that pushes him away from rap and tabloid politics. Nas and Damian Marley are both sons of celebrated musical figures, so god knows they probably have plenty to talk about. Five years ago, Nas guested on Marley's "Road to Zion" and sounded great doing it. Onstage together at SXSW, they had a lively chemistry, Marley chatting madly over the "N.Y. State of Mind" beat and Nas giddily playing hypeman on "Welcome to Jamrock". And first single and album opener "As We Enter" promises great things, Nas and Marley furiously trading off tag-team punchlines over a track that perfectly splits the difference between dusty NY boom-bap and warm post-dancehall reggae.
But too often on Distant Relatives, Nas and Marley fall into a sort of middlebrow funk, kicking overripe platitudes over sunny session-musician lopes and letting their self-importance suffocate their personalities. Marley's never done his best work shooting for inspirational. On his best tracks, he brings less of his father's wizened optimism and more of the gravelly, demonic snarl of dancehall-schooled avengers like Sizzla or Capleton. Nas, meanwhile, is best at tense, tactile details: The feeling of gunpowder burning your nostril hair, the dank smell of piss in the project elevator. In trying to make what basically amounts to a modern-day Bob Marley album, they've both pushed themselves away from their strengths.
Nas strays into either the too-general ("I reach 'em like Bono/ So get rid of your self-sorrow") or puzzling paranoia ("If satellites is causing earthquakes, will we survive it?"). The production, mostly from Marley and brother Stephen, tends too often toward stifled, Grammy-bait guitar solos and tinkling, expensive R&B sheen. The track "My Generation" is all the album's worst impulses put on display, a sickly attempt at gospel with Joss Stone yowling all over the chorus and a truly dogshit Lil Wayne guest verse-- all in service of fuzzy, feel-good preachiness. On tracks like this one, the dorm-room philosophizing gets a little thick.
But even with all that, the album is still a true collaborative affair, two deeply talented guys with amazing, evocative voices finding common ground and exploring it. So when it does work, it's serious. "Nah Mean" puts a nasty mid-90s NY rap beat in service of some ferocious snarling from both principals. "Land of Promise" is devastating old-school dancehall toughness, not far removed from Marley's own "Welcome to Jamrock", with Nas finding new cadences for his dusky monotone. "As We Enter" and "Patience" respectively sample Mulatu Astatke and Amadou and Mariam, both to great effect. When these guys stop trying to be positive and just vent, they do great things. Nas sounds most like himself in the last minute of "Strong Will Continue". The song is mostly pretty bland, five minutes of sloganeering before Nas suddenly turns ugly, wondering if his ex-wife cheated on him, bringing up Bruce Lee's family curse, raging at nobody in particular, then breaking everything off with haughty style: "See a nigga disappearing with the baddest honeys in the whole spot, yeeah." With all the heavy-handed philosophizing all around it, it's pretty thrilling to hear Nas suddenly going all "Oochie Wally" on us, if only for a second. But then the song ends, and it's back to the preaching." -PitchFork
Rolling Stone (p.68) - 3 stars out of 5 -- "Though they decry Africa's ills, they also offer hopeful visions on the Lil Wayne-assisted 'My Generation.'"
Spin - "Bob's youngest son and Nas concoct an entire suite of rap/reggae crossover devoted to black nationalism and African liberation."
Billboard (p.36) - "[T]he themes are communicated best through the music, a hybrid of the genres each artist has mastered coupled with African- and African-American-derived rhythms."
Mojo (Publisher) (p.92) - 4 stars out of 5 -- "[With the] choir-scored gospel-rap of 'In His Own Words' and blissful Isleys-esque slow-funk of 'Africa Must Wake UP' offering melodious pop to sweeting Nas and Marley's strong medicinal polemic."
Pitchfork (Website) - "[A] true collaborative affair, two deeply talented guys with amazing, evocative voices finding common ground and exploring it."
Uncut (magazine) (p.115) - 3 stars out of 5 -- "Single 'As We Enter', finds the pair trading perfect verses over a Marley production that takes cues from Pete Rock."
Audio Mixers: Charles Wakeman; James "Bonzai" Caruso.
Recording information: Circle House Studios, Miami, FL; D.A.R.P., Atlanta, GA; Henson Recording Studios, Los Angeles, CA; Hit Factory, Miami, FL; Lion's Den Studios, Miami, FL; NRG Studios, Los Angeles, CA; Setai Recordings, Miami, FL.
Photographers: Nabil Elderkin; Neville Garrick.
The Nas and Damian Marley collaboration Distant Relatives came together as a way to earn money for schools in Africa, but before any corny "charity album" misconceptions get in the way, know that this is one purposeful monster and a conceptional bull's eye that fully supports its title. Actually, it all comes together in the album's first few seconds as Marley and Nas loop a sample of Ethiopian jazzman Mulatu Astatke for "As We Enter"'s effective and infectious beat. Rapidly trading the lines (Nas): "I've got the guns"/(Damian): "I've got the Ganja"/(Nas): "And we can blaze it up on your block if you wanna" just raises the excitement level to a "Welcome to Jamrock" or "Nas Is Like," but when the following "Tribes at War" creates a cinematic big picture of Africa crumbling while its people are unwillingly scattered across the globe, the album turns compelling. On the track, guest K'Naan offers the provocative "I drink poison/Then I vomit diamonds" while the devastating "Leaders" features Nas' "Malcolm on the podium/Shells drop to linoleum/Swipe those/Place them on display on the Smithsonian." Still, there's much more hope and pride here than anger and darkness. The majestic "Strong Will Continue" marches forth with a positive spiritual message, while "Count Your Blessings" is musically akin to Damian's Bobby Brown collaboration "Beautiful" and father Bob's's "One Love" lyrically. The magical moment that explains it all comes in the form of an old Dennis Brown interview which is sampled for "Land of Promise." Answering the question "What do you think of Africa?" Brown replies "Just to mention of it man, is like, you call mi name man" in a voice that displays a whirlwind of emotions, from the very best to the very worst. Distant Relatives is this African contradiction explored further with hip-hop, dancehall, and by way of samples, jazz, and African music showing the way. It's a royal and a striking reminder of why these two artists have reached legendary status. ~ David Jeffries