The multi-artist album in hip-hop has a pretty short history. It also has a pretty shitty history. As evidenced by the two terrible R. Kelly/Jay-Z teamup albums, getting together for an album-length collaboration is generally not the greatest idea. With memories of “Best of Both Worlds” in my head, I wasn’t even going to purchase “Distant Relatives”, the album that teams veteran rapper Nas with the son of the late Bob Marley, Damian, also known as “Jr. Gong”. It wasn’t until I read a comment on this very blog that I decided the album might be worth my money.
Boy, was “Distant Relatives” ever worth my money.
Nas, whose albums are frighteningly inconsistent, has the eye of the tiger on this album. What’s more, Marley (who produced the entire album himself), gives Nas the most sympathetic production the 36-year old rapper has had since his 1994 debut, “Illmatic”. Instead of giving “Distant Relatives” a throwback boom-bap sound or attempting to match the songs up with today’s latest beatmakers, Marley mixes a live-band sound (acoustic guitars! congas! do i hear a horn section?? a STRING section??) with the occasional sample. As important, the individual songs (and the album itself, really) center around a specific theme: the result is one of Nas’s most focused, personal and legitimately politically and socially conscious works. Heady praise for an artist who has often by criticized (and rightfully so) for delivering unclear, hypocritical or nonsensical messages in his rhymes.
The highlights here are plentiful. An obviously burnt Nas vents his spleen at ex-wife Kelis on the triumphant “Strong Will Continue”, first single “As We Enter” is a showcase for the chemistry the two men share. “Count Your Blessings” (the musical background of which would fit perfectly on a Jack Johnson album) is positive without being corny, and also serves as an open letter to Nas’s newborn son Knight. Even the guest appearances (generally the most head-scratching part of the average album) are tastefully chosen. Marley’s brother Stephen makes a couple of appearances here, as does Somalia-born emcee K’naan (a smart move considering how much of “Distant Relatives” centers on the topic of Africa past, present and future). Even the requisite Lil Wayne cameo (on the children’s choir and Joss Stone-assisted “My Generation) feels like it actually belongs on the album.
No matter what the genre, in this ego-filled age it’s very rare to see two artists put their collective egos aside for a project. “Distant Relatives” strongly hints at the direction both men should be going into from a topical and a musical perspective as they mature. The merging together of these two talents creates a powerful work that Bob himself would have been proud of.
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