On September 14, 1973, Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones was born in Crown Heights, New York. On July 21, 1978, Damian “Junior Gong” Marley was born in Kingston, Jamaica. Although they grew up years and miles and worlds apart, Nas and Damian shared a love for music instilled in them by their musician fathers, and it is that shared love that would eventually bring the two men together. The turns of fate tear apart as often as they unite, so perhaps we should first take a moment to appreciate the simple fact that Distant Relatives exists.
Whether it was divine intervention, commercial interest or something else entirely that brought them together, God’s son and the son of a musical god have joined forces for their new collaborative album Distant Relatives and the results are nothing short of a revelation.
With Marley tampering down Nas’ tendency towards self-obsession, and Nas giving Marley’s island-tinged sound a hip-hop edge, Distant Relatives proves that great music can still be made about important issues. Distant Relatives isn’t afraid to think big. The album’s overarching theme is the global connection of black people, and by extension, all people. Admirably, part of the proceeds will go towards building a school in Africa, and the other part of the proceeds will go towards buying Kelis new shoes. Sorry, was that an inappropriate time for a child support joke?
When I first heard about Nas and Marley’s project, I’ll admit I was skeptical. As JAY-Zand R. Kelly once showed us, greatness does not come merely because great men are brought together. In fact, sometimes people get maced. So it was with a certain sigh of relief that I heard the album’s appropriately named lead single, "As We Enter." Paced by a neck-snapping beat "As We Enter" is the album’s most easily accessible and hip-hop track, with Marley flexing his toasting muscles while the two trade lines like they’re sharing one mic. (One mic? Get it? Nevermind.)
Having immediately established their chemistry, Nas and Damian gave a hint of Distant Relative’s inspiration core on the second single "Strong Will Continue," an epically-oriented track that Nas, unfortunately, makes all-about-Nas with rhymes about the perils of unfaithful wives. Still, "Strong Will Continue" is a sign of the duo’s willingness to risk being great, a sign that was even stronger on "My Generation." Easily one of the album’s standout tracks, "My Generation" somehow blends a children’s chorus, a piano-laced melody, Marley’s accented flow, Nas at his lyrical best, Joss Stone’s deeply soulful vocals and, as if that wasn’t enough, a guest verse from Lil Wayne. In less talented hands "My Generation" would be a mess, but here the finished product remarkably manages to more than live up to its creators’ outsized ambitions.
Most people who pick up a copy of Distant Relatives will be doing so first and foremost on the strength of Nas’ name, but, like me, those people will come away immensely impressed by Damian Marley. In fact, the more I listen to Distant Relatives, the more I’m convinced that the majority of the credit should be directed Marley’s way. In addition to pulling double duty vocally—Marley’s versatile voice provides both nearly all the sung hooks in addition to verses delivered in his distinctive sung/rapped style—the singer's responsible for most of the album’s production, and his work is by turns sonically lush, aggressively gripping and often gorgeous.
"Dispear" is a beautifully threatening track that sounds like either a war cry or a burial moan, or both, and "Tribal War" is a gripping cut that fittingly finds its foundation in pounding drums that Nas, Marley, and guest K’naan use to both shed light on the root of Africa’s ills and the root of human conflict. As clichéd as it may be, it’s hard not to hear Bob Marley’s spirit living through Damian’s music, and it’s that spirit that ultimately truly elevates Distant Relatives.
It would be not only ironic but wrong to divide out credit on an album founded on unity, so let me emphasize that Distant Relatives is first and foremost a collaborative effort. "Nah Mean" features one of the best Nas performances we’re heard in a minute, Marley’s reggae roots makes "Land of Promise" bump and together they make "Africa Must Wake Up" extraordinary. Still, maybe it’s best not to worry about how Distant Relatives came to be, not to analyze who’s responsible for what. Maybe it’s best if we all just simply listen. This is what greatness sounds like.