Issue #87: Distant Relatives by Nas & Damian Marley
October 16, 2017
Released On May 18, 2010
Released By Def Jam & Universal Republic Records
This is the first album I have suggested for Off Your Radar that had actually fallen off of my radar. I heard the single “As We Enter” on MTV as well as on the tv show Psych. (It was used as part of a tap-dancing competition — Psych was a weird show.) Having some money on my iTunes account, I decided to buy the album on the strength of that one single.
At the time, I feel like I was disappointed that all the rest of the songs weren’t the same format as “As We Enter”. Looking back, it’s the same thing I felt when all the songs on Barenaked Ladies’ Stunt weren’t like “One Week.” (The reason, I would eventually learn, is that every song on Stunt is way better than “One Week.”) I felt a similar amount of embarrassment, deemed the album “fine,” and moved on.
I don’t know why it occurred to me to suggest it for OYR, but when I did, it felt like the right choice, for some reason. Then I listened to the album for the first time in something like seven years and, I have to admit, I was pretty blown away.
In the past couple of months, I’ve seen the majority of Do The Right Thing for the first time (caught it on HBO about 20 minutes in) and read The Autobiography Of Malcolm X. I feel like experiencing these in close succession really opened this album up to me a lot more. There’s a feeling of tension that goes along with the overall feeling of unity that I get by the end of the album. The song “Tribes At War” talks about how easy it is to divide ourselves into categories of “Us” and “Them” while “Africa Must Wake Up” talks about how we are all distant relatives.
I actually finished Malcolm X this weekend and when I was giving the album one more listen before beginning to write this introduction, I was astounded to hear the lines in “Leaders” about witnessing his assassination at the Audubon Ballroom and collecting the shells to place next to gemstones at the Smithsonian.
It’s things like that that make this album feel very important to me. We are all connected and we are all one human race. The sooner we realize that and stop trying to tear each other down, the better. I think this album is pertinent to the world right now and I hope that, by saying that, I haven’t oversold it or hyped it up too much. Give it a listen. There are some excellent tunes on it.
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
Junior Gong and Escobar reinforcing solidarity through shared ancestry.
“Distant relative” is such an interesting expression. It’s contradictory; the first half could almost be an antonym for the second, given the context. Far, yet close. That push and pull is what makes the album Nas and Damian Marley made together so compelling. Their styles are obviously divergent, but “As We Enter” is as fluid and successful as any collaborative single you’ll find — not to mention the fact that it’s way up there on the list of songs you hear the start of and immediately look around for a dance floor to populate. (Shouts to Ethio-jazz patriarch Mulatu Astatke.) But the meaning of the Distant Relatives title goes much deeper, in the sense that the album brings together both personal narratives and broader geopolitical concerns. I found myself drawn to “Strong Will Continue,” in large part because it chronicles — with no small amount of vulnerability — the marital struggles Nas was going through at the time. It’s the kind of personal retelling you’d get from a family member. Other tracks zoom out to voice the struggles associated with being separated from a spiritual homeland, “Land Of Promise” in particular. The way the song compares American cities to African counterparts straddles the line between celebration and lament, with a wilting keyboard sample that brings the mood down throughout. Then again, closing track “Africa Must Wake Up” emphasizes connectedness: “We’re all distant relatives / no matter where you from / where you live.” Distant Relatives finds that uncertain place where individual identity meets world politics, which is what makes it such a smart and effective document of living as part of a diaspora.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
Sometimes I’m such a liar. Hearing from friends about a rough day at work, a car that’s broken down, a guy who skipped out after the first night together; reading on the news about the breakdown of civil rights and tolerance; seeing kids I’ve taught take out hits on each other and succumb to the streets again as soon as they leave… it’s easier to give shoulder rubs, head shakes, a few “it’ll get better, honey” phrases than to admit the bleakness that rings my vision some days. With the daily news hitting like a punch in the jaw just about everyday, listening to the optimism that bolsters the lyrics from Distant Relatives felt, at first, contrived. Spinning about everything from friends in the ER to basic rights for children, Nas and reggae royalty Damian Marley infuse cultural awareness into hip-hop and neo-African beats to produce an album that rises to the top of the barrel, far away from the bitter bottom. If a couple of tracks are more akin to a pop star’s kind of one-track Top 40 dip into hip-hop than anything else, they’re forgiven when songs like the opening track “As We Enter” punch through with the freedom and freshness of the first day of summer.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
Far from being off my radar, this album is actually a minor classic in my household, having seen high rotation in 2010 and hitting my “Best Of The Rest Of” list for that year. Even seven years later, Distant Relatives still stands alone as the most balanced and well-developed meeting of hip hop and reggae, which is surprising when you consider how elemental sound system culture is to the development of rap music. Even more remarkable is how good it still sounds, with Marley’s rich, soulful production providing varied backgrounds for a series of mostly well-conceived and focused songs. Both Nas and Marley are talented enough that they could probably have made a posse album of freestyle jams and achieved half-decent results — but they pushed themselves, aiming for substance over a flash in the pan. So the question becomes not what they did so right — mostly everything — but where did they go wrong and hold the album back from being a full-fledged masterpiece? Firstly, the opening track, “As We Enter,” is an absolute knockout, with a brilliant repurposing of a classic Mulatu Astatke groove and fun and fleet rhyming from both principals. “You’ve got the guns and I’ve got the ganja,” and “My man’ll speak patois and I can speak rap star,” are just two lines exemplifying the playful aggression both men dish out. “As We Enter” is so strong, however, that it almost sets the bar too high. Remarkably, they keep things going with an almost unnoticeable fall off, as the next four cuts are are all damned good. Then comes “Count Your Blessings,” which succumbs to a certain cheesiness both artists can fall prey to (remember Nas’s “I Can,” with its children’s chorus and Für Elise hook?). “Dispear” shakes off the fug quickly, going on the march like a herd of elephants with raps as sharp as the blade being sharpened in the backing track. It’s unstoppable! “Land Of Promise” has a deep, rootsy groove, blending in some dubbed out horns and some vocals from Bob Marley’s favorite singer, Dennis Brown. “In His Own Words” is a sap-fest with Damian’s brother Stephen providing extra treacle and “Nah Mean” has the flavor of a B-Side, with a repetitive groove and lyrics that aim for profundity and miss. “Patience” hits the mark however, hypnotic and spare, with Marley ruminating, “Are we growing wiser or are we just growing tall?” and Nas running through the history of the world in a few concise lines. It’s an organic creation and doesn’t sound like either man’s genre. “My Generation” brings back Nas’s schoolyard chorus and really shows its age with guests like Lil Wayne and, god help us, Joss Stone. I’d rather hear Pepsi try to teach the world to sing. At least it’s short. “Africa Must Wake Up” is actually uplifting, however, with mournful strings, smart lyrics, and a guest spot by Somalian vocalist K’naan, taking its place alongside other great songs about the continent like “Africa Unite” by Bob Marley and “Whole World Is Africa” by Black Uhuru — I feel a mixtape coming on! “We’re all distant relatives,” Nas reminds us near the end before another chorus from Marley and some searing guitar brings the album in for a smooth landing. So, despite some turbulence along the way, Distant Relatives is still a great trip and the rare collaborative album that mostly amplifies the strengths of the participants rather than cancelling them out. So give it a listen whether or not you were already familiar, and if you want more Damian Marley, dig into Stony Hill, his first solo album in 11 years, which came out earlier this year.
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
A stylish video with a basic layout that helps accentuate the verbal punch of the record’s opening track.
Nas has multiple personalities. There’s the shock-rap teenage prodigy that “went to hell for snuffing Jesus” before his debut album. There’s the Illmatic genius that “snuck an oozie on the island in [his] army jacket lining.” There’s his misogynistic side represented by “shorty owe you for ice-Nas.” And then there’s “revolutionary-Nas” that told us that all he needed was “One Mic.” Well, Distant Relatives is every “revolutionary-Nas” fan’s dream. Every verse is filled with history, black pride, and a call to his community to be self-sufficient. The album is a perfect platform for “revolutionary-Nas” since the general sentiment of the tracks are standard fare for his partner, Damien Marley. The first track that really got my hyped was “Friends,” a syrupy groove aimed at ungrateful hangers-on. Nas is at his absolute apex with the wordplay, spitting viscous lines like “you ain’t a G, and if you was I don’t recall / Who would roll with y’all? / bunch of fuckin’ know-it-alls who dough is small.” Tough. Without a doubt, my favorite track is the hip hop slanted “Nah Mean.” The aggressive boom-bap production here stands out among the vast majority of the reggae-influenced tracklist. Damian Marley holds it down throughout the album on a very high level as well, however, I feel funny trying to transpose patois, so I’ll save everyone the struggle. More fi-yah!
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
I am probably the last person you should ever choose to critique a reggae album. It’s one of those genres that I have avoided exploring due to my own lack of knowledge. When I saw Nas & Damian Marley’s Distant Relatives on the list of upcoming OYR selections, I was excited to finally explore some reggae. And, if I didn’t like it… well, at least there was Nas. While I like the music a lot, particularly when Damian and Nas go back and forth in the same verse, the collaboration’s ambitiousness struck me in particular. Intended as a charity album to build schools in Africa, the two artists wanted to “build empowerment” through songs about their shared ancestry. They tackle big themes, like the African diaspora and the crime that threatens to tear them apart. Sometimes the lyrics seem a little serious (like lots of references to historical figures), because it’s just difficult to write about those themes lightly; but most often, they really work. I particularly liked the addition of Somali-Canadian rapper K’Naan, who offered another perspective, from someone who has actually experienced war firsthand. “Tribes At War,” the first of two tracks with K’Naan, traces the story of the African diaspora and how it has affected the place of Blacks in the societal “tribes” they are placed in, fighting “over money, over land, over oil, and over good.” Nas notes, “sub-standard housing got the young running rampant,” pointing out the problems with segregated neighborhoods. In his verse, K’Naan raps, “I gave you music, you enthused in my kindness / So how dare you reduce me to Donny Imus” showing how Blacks are used for their popular music, but are stilled called by stereotypical slurs. The lyrics and perspective of Distant Relatives feel so prescient, seven years after its release. In a time when a Black man who was beat up at a Nazi rally actually faces charges, it’s a good idea to go back and revisit this excellent collaboration between two legendary artists.
Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ
Helping support the album’s weighty message is an inspired & convincing union of hip-hop & reggae.
The art of rap is an element of musical expression that is a lot like certain deceptive cooking ingredients. Eggs for example, can be cooked in a myriad of ways — most of which can be executed by your average person for a quick and effective breakfast — but when you get down to the details of it, a well-made poached egg actually takes quite a bit of finesse and attention to detail if one is going for that balance of perfect taste, presentation, and texture. What does this have to do with rap, Nas, Damian Marley, and Distant Relatives? Well, from the outside, as a generalized concept, rap seems straightforward — like eggs: Spoken lyrics, often rhymed, set to varying rhythms, sometimes over melodic elements that tell a plethora of stories. However, from the moment Distant Relatives starts up, Marley and Nas pull out all the tricks and finesse from their sleeves and show what it means to not “just rap” for 60 minutes, but to do it well, and with a final presentation that’s pleasing on the ear and informative for the mind. The mixture of strong and confident speech with instrumental backing hooks is shrewdly divided. Sometimes the ratio can feel tilted too far one way or the other so that the two very different elements come across as competing for space with one another. This doesn’t happen on any of the 13 tracks and in addition to balancing the amount of each component, the sheer variety of instrumental sounds and style of tonal hooks shows that the singable/hummable/melodic half of this record wasn’t set to a stylistic cruise control where the guys managed to find the magic formula one time and then say, “Okay, let’s just swirl that up 12 more times, call it a day, and get to the important part: the lyrics.” No, each track is crafted to be interesting and gripping for completely separate reasons and to be able to stand on their own — from the quirky attitude amplified by the organ-esque keys garnishing the aptly titled, “As We Enter,” to the sonically prominent percussion and thick guitar chords that raise “Strong Will Continue“‘s already anthemic lyrics with to its peak motivational potential, (“Only the strong will continue / I know you have it in you”), to the easy going hand percussion, acoustic guitar, and chimes that introduce gratitude track, “Count Your Blessings,” Distant Relatives makes it look easy to place astute rapping skills among a extensive body of other musical ideas without the record ultimately looking too busy or scattered. Then to top it off, as a personal preference, this album gets a major nod of appreciation and approval for being one that contains audibly comprehensible rap. If one is fast with the rhymes, that’s one thing. It’s when the words run together, like egg yolks running together in a pan, that the amount of patience needed to unearth what the lyrics have to offer becomes too much.
Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier
It’s been a long week. I’ve been to several shows, seen friends that I haven’t seen in months, spent more money on travel in the last five days than I have in almost a year, and three of my last five meals have consisted of French fries and ice cream. I’m drained. As I started my walk home from work, I put Distant Relatives on and I felt… “reinvigorated” isn’t exactly the right word, but for all intents and purposes, I felt reinvigorated. “As We Enter” had exactly the energy I needed before trekking through my neighborhood — upbeat enough to keep my interest, but not “in-your-face” enough to get my adrenaline rushing (for the record, I’m generally a huge fan of the latter). The rest of the album followed suit, and it really made my walk a pleasant one, especially during “Count Your Blessings,” which I found myself humming along with by the second chorus. Despite being someone largely unfamiliar with both Nas (I gave a few listens to Illmatic in high school at the insistence of the kids I sat with in my ceramics class and disappointed them all by not liking it as much as them [though I do enjoy his verses in “Too Many Rappers“]) and Damian Marley (my knowledge of reggae is almost entirely limited to Desmond Dekker and Marley’s father), I wasn’t sure if the music would connect with me, but I was sure wrong about that. The combination of the two artists’ styles works well, no one sounds out of their element and the songs don’t sound forced or gimmicky like some collaborations. Naturally, I got curious and did some research on Distant Relatives, and when addressing the album’s sound, Marley himself even told Rolling Stone, “A lot of charity albums come off corny. We want this to be something you’d play in your car.” He was wrong about the mode of transportation that I choose, but he was spot on about everything else.
Dustin Gates (@cmoncheermeup)
Relapsed Pop Culture Junkie
I think Nas and Damian Marley need to be highly commended for this record, as they pull of a great deal of amazing feats. To start, this record is a true collaboration, one where neither artist overshadows the other or drops one another in the shallow end of unknown musical waters. In addition to that, they also marry two styles that have an uneasy history together despite their musical roots being so similar. Though some songs may feel clunky or overproduced, for the most part, the mash-up of reggae and hip-hop, even with neither at its pure state, is quite impressive, particularly on tracks like “Strong Will Continue” and “Africa Must Wake Up.” Then, there comes the album’s ambitious subject matter, one that aims to inspire, unite, and invigorate listeners of all background. Like the mash-up, there are some missteps here — particularly “My Generation” which makes “Waiting On The World To Change” look like “What’s Going On” — but for the most part, their message hits and lines up well with their sonic aspirations and musical identities. On top of that, the duo still finds time to have a bit of fun on the record, delivering three bombastic tracks that can be enjoyed in any context: “As We Enter,” “Dispear,” and “Nah Mean.” They spread these more abstract bangers throughout the record, giving you some brief reprieve from the album’s more lofty social sermons and revealing more about the symbiotic relationship between Nas and Marley. All of this helps overshadows some of the album’s low points (“My Generation” again) and forgettable filler (the meandering hope of “Land Of Promise”), making Distant Relatives a great record that feels more urgent and inspiring each passing year.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
Specialist In All Styles by Orchestra Baobab
Chosen By Davy Jones