September 5, 2014

My Gut Reaction / Something (Sort Of) Different: Nas & Damian Marley - Distant Relatives (May 18, 2010)

You hear that?  It's like some sort of knocking sound, a consistent knocking that goes and stops?  That's the sound of a nail being hammered into the coffin that contains the back catalog of one Nasir Jones.  Today's post finishes up his discography for all of his existing officially-released solo projects.  Which, of course, means that this sense of accomplishment will be quickly dashed later today when Nas announces his next album, but shut the hell up and let me enjoy this, okay?

Distant Relatives, Nas Escobar's album-length collaboration with reggae artist Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley (son of Bob Marley, so at least Nas is trying to roll with winners), fills in the gap between 2008's Untitled (formerly...well, come on, you know this already) and 2012's Life Is Good.  Recorded over the span of three years, Nas and Marley chose to combine their respective styles in an effort to create a hip hop/reggae hybrid that capitalized on the strengths of both genres while avoiding all of the pitfalls that naturally occur when a rapper who doesn't typically engage in reggae tendencies suddenly tries his hand at it, because how hard could it be, right?, just like how all of your friends suddenly thought they could rap after playing PaRappa The Rapper.

Nas and Jr. Gong built Distant Relatives over the dusty bones of an EP they were originally going to put together to benefit Africa, made up of discarded album tracks that they had both contributed to.  After a couple of sessions, they chose to go the full-length route, and, with the financial backing of Nasir's label Def Jam (but without the marketing budget - I'm pretty sure I never saw even an advertisement in a magazine for Distant Relatives, let alone a music video), sought to record a rap/reggae album that focused on positivity.  Hip hop is awfully negative as a musical genre, only showing moments of levity when rappers start boasting about how much useless shit they've purchased with their advances (that they have to pay back when their album inevitably tanks, but you never hear about that), and both Nas and Marley wanted to bring something different to the table.  As such, only a handful of guests were asked to contribute, so as not to distort the overall effect, and none of them were from Nasir's usual bag of tricks, so those of you two looking for some Salaam Remi production will probably want to defect back to Life Is Good.

Distant Relatives is a project that flew completely under my radar in 2010, in that while I was aware of its existence, I felt no need to actually ever listen to it.  But after reading a description provided by Nas himself through interviews promoting the album, I have to admit I'm kind of interested: it sounds like the polar opposite of the angry Untitled, which, while Nas had very good reason to be fucking pissed, was just exhausting to listen to.  And since Damian Marley produced the entire album (with a few assists from his brother Stephen, both of whom happen to be uncles to most of Lauryn Hill's kids, and Hill, of course, has worked with Nas in the past, so it's all like one big happy incestuous family, this music business thing), at least the message probably won't be diluted because of the music.

Although hearing Nas on a Major Lazer song is now something I actually want to hear, weirdly.

An introduction to the project (and the first single), useful for assisting hip hop heads with acclimating to the sound of Marley's voice, but a playful introduction, thanks to the catchiness of Marley's instrumental, which approaches old-school breakbeat nostalgia, something that we all already know Nasir sounds great over.  He passes the microphone to his partner throughout, the pair sharing both verses and visions with the listener, and it actually works, even with the unnecessary hook and Nasir's insistence on using the phrase, "Anne Frank-ly speaking", which just sounded really fucking dumb.  Still, this was probably one of the man's best intros of his entire career, so it's hard to fault him one misguided line.

Aside from the fact that it doesn't really sound like a "collaboration" in the strictest sense, "Tribes At War" isn't bad.  Marley's instrumental is pretty decent, even though it approaches Rockwilder-esque synths during the hook which are awfully distracting, and all three verses are alright (one each from our hosts and the guest star, the Canadian-by-way-of-Somalia rapper K'naan), in that everyone sticks to a theme, typically a problem for Nasir: dude just cannot focus most of the time.  But nobody on here sounds like they were working alongside anyone else: "Tribes At War" appears to be a Damian Marley track that Nas and K'naan "remixed" by adding their own unsolicited verses.  Still, could have been a lot worse.

Kicks off with some Nas lines that will immediately make you think that "Strong Will Continue" will sound like any of those other boring, "serious" Nas album tracks that serve as filler in between misguided singles.  (You know exactly what I'm talking about, you two.)  But then the beat kicks in, and Marley starts talk-singing, and you realize that "Strong Will Continue" actually is pretty good.  Who knew all Nasir needed was a consistent collaborator to tell him that some of his latent tendencies weren't beneficial to the final product?  (Answer: everyone.)  For his part, Esco even sounds refreshed behind the mic.  This was too long (over six fucking minutes?  Really?), but good nonetheless.

Distant Relatives is more a Damian Marley album that just so happens to feature Nas on every track than it is a proper collaboration.  Which is fine: Nas should be using different approaches in order to get people to give any fucks about whatever he drops.  But "Leaders" shifts the balance of power firmly in Marley's direction, as he invites his brother Stephen to both produce and lend the chorus, and even though he spits two verses on here, Nasir's impact vanishes immediately, like a ghost who has finally taken care of all of his unfinished business and now has no problem with you living in what used to be his home, since you seem to be a nice enough guy and help keep things tidy, although he wishes you wouldn't masturbate quite so much.  That's just how the ghost feels, though: he grew up in a different era.  "Leaders" was okay, if scattershot, since the theme is more generic than specific, but Stephen's beat moves too slowly for me to give a shit about it.

This one, however, was pretty good.  Marley's instrumental moves just as slowly as his brother's work on the previous track, but it suits the subject matter more, as Esco and Marley discuss the differences between real friends and those fake fucks that latch on to you once you've made something of yourself.  Nas sounds especially bitter during his two verses, as though someone broke his heart right before he stepped into the booth, while Jr. Gong stays out of the way, delivering the hook and his leading verse with a level head.  "Friends" actually wouldn't sound out of place on a proper Nas solo project, which is the highest praise I can actually give any song from Distant Relatives by law.

Okay, this was corny as shit.  The musical backing sounds like the kind of fuckery you would hear at the beginning of a corporate training video, at least until a guitar is introduced during Esco's bars.  (Hey, I see what I did there.)  However, the lyrics are all on  a positive slant, which was a nice touch, since you don't hear many rap songs talking about how you should appreciate what you have instead of going out of your way to snatch up a bunch of shit you probably don't even need.  The sentiment is sweet, but the execution means that I won't be listening to this one ever again, so.

After asking the audience to "Count Your Blessings", Nas and Marley pull out the big guns, threatening the shit out of you two with the aid of a harsh, aggressive instrumental that comes complete with multiple instances of a sword (or, more accurately, a spear, probably), like an old-school Wu-Tang Clan song with a crappy beat might sound.  I suppose Jr. Gong felt the need to explain that shit isn't all sweet, albeit in his sung-spoken manner, and, well, Nas is no stranger to more violent lyrics: he's the same guy that rapped about guns in his dresser and sneaking weapons into Rikers Island, after all.  (Which, by the way, would never fucking work in today's climate: hiding an Uzi within the lining of your jacket would obviously make you stand out, but whatever.)  The track was alright, but not great.

Adding to that sense of disconnect between collaborators I touched on earlier, Nasir's verse on "Land Of Promise" takes place over a different instrumental than the rest of this fucking song.  Marley's work behind the boards isn't bad or anything, but, well, let's look at it like this: remember how on "Mercy", Big Sean, Pusha T, and Tity Boi all perform over the same repetitive (but I still liked it) beat, but once Yeezuchristo stepped to the plate, everything changed?  Not quite as dramatic, but yeah, that's what happens here, with extra attention given to Nasir's verse as though it were the greatest thing ever written.  And with that, I've probably written far more words on "Land Of Promise" than any other critic ever.

One thing I do like about Distant Relatives is the positive focus most of these songs have.  Sure, Nas sounds as bored with his art as he always does (I repeat again, it seems to be scientifically impossible for that guy to ever sound like he's enjoying the fact that he gets to make a living doing something as silly as spitting rhymes), but instead of settling for his usual gritty street tales, he at least tries to follow his co-host's lead, attempting to inspire rather than anger.  Damian invites his brother Stephen back to contribute (both the beat and some vocals) to this altogether pleasant, if forgettable, track.

First things first: Marley's beat is the catchiest of the entire album thus (at least thus far).  It's playful in the way hip hop itself was back when it was performed primarily in parks and clubs, and that charming aesthetic influences Nasir's bars along with Marley's own contribution.  I wasn't expecting much, given that song title, but this shit was actually pretty good: I wouldn't mind hearing this beat underneath some promising mixtape rapper's freestyle, as it is the most obvious "rap" instrumental of the entire project.  If you like Nas but are wary of this project on general principle, "Nah Mean" is your safety school.

It will certainly take much more than simple "Patience" to sit through this nearly six-minute track.  Okay, that sentence was more an easy joke than it was a criticism, but I'm still dismissing this song, since the Stephen Marley instrumental, while not bad, doesn't hold the audience still amped over "Nah Mean", and it moves too slowly to carry the subject matter (which I realize is the same complaint I also had about the Stephen Marley-produced "Leaders", fuck it, sue me).  Also, vocals during the hook are annoying as shit.  Nasir and Jr. Gong try their best over the psuedo-trap-ness of the music, but, and I admit this is another easy joke, I couldn't wait for this to end.  Because I'm fucking impatient, y'all.

Already that guest list makes very little sense, so you can imagine I had very little faith in "My Generation" from the jump, especially since it's not a cover of the Who standard.  Vocalist Joss Stone took time out of her empty schedule to be thoroughly wasted on this song, performing ad-libs during a hook that was already dominated by the (repetitive, to be fair) voices in a children's choir, and at one point even sounding like a bored, constipated monkey in the background of Nasir's verse.  Yeah, I said it.  Our co-hosts come through with the overt positivity, though, and as for Weezy, well, and I'm not going to write this all that often, he actually proves that he earned his guest spot by sticking to the script and generally coming across as an actual rapper (even though his bars sound like Drake may have done a once-over first, but whatever).  Pure queso, but not bad for what it is.  I sure hope Joss Stone invested the meager paycheck she made from this cameo, though.

Distant Relatives ends with nearly seven minutes of claims that Africa is the origin of the universe as we know it (sort of) and how important it is not just for us to recognize that fact, but also for Africa to pull itself out of its doldrums to become the powerhouse it should be in the world.  To do this, Marley produces a meandering instrumental and invites K'naan back to contribute.  To be fair, a lot of "Africa Must Wake Up" is just music: it's not like Nas is preaching at us for seven fucking minutes.  Although I do have to give him credit for working the word "diaspora" into his bars.  As a mission statement, it needs work (it's more of a "hey, maybe click on this Buzzfeed article when you have the time?" than it is a call for action), but as an album closer, it's pleasant enough.

Those of you familiar with the iTunes version of Distant Relatives were treated to an additional song, a collaboration with Junior Reid called "Ancient People".  I have the disc version, so I'm not familiar with how this bonus track sounds, nor do I have the patience to look it up, because.  If you feel like sharing anything about "Ancient People", though, feel free to use the comments to fulfill your desires or something.

THE LAST WORD:  Distant Relatives actually isn't that bad.  It's not great or perfect, but it has many solid moments: it's a Nas album that doesn't really sound like a Nas album.  Damian Marley's musical backing gives the proceedings a much different energy than anything else Esco has ever done.  While said energy doesn't always keep listeners awake and alert, it makes for a nice change of pace, and the decision to focus on positivity (for the majority of the album, anyway) helps Distant Relatives stand out in Nasir's crowded discography.  It makes sense why this project tanked: it's really not so much a rap album as it is a reggae album that features some rapping on it, and I understand how that could be a major turn-off for a lot of you two.  But if you're a Nas stan (or even if you're not - hell, I've documented many times on this very site how much of a Nas fan I'm not) and are in the mood for something off the beaten path, Distant Relatives is worthy of a listen.  I know, kids, I'm scared, too.


HHID has explored nearly every nook and cranny in Nas's catalog.


  1. I've always enjoyed this album. Damian's production has a nice feel to it and Nas is around just long enough to not bring it down. Does have some corny moments though.

  2. Ancient people is ok

  3. Dope album!

  4. Holy shit Max actually LIKED a Nas album!! Nah just kidding very pleasantly surprised to see more Nas reviewed and glad you did it justice

    1. i think the buy count on Nas is now 4. Illmatic, It Was Written, Lost Tapes and this

  5. Has the email post thing always existed?

  6. hey max do you get drunk or high when you listen to albums before you write like how does the process go cause you know how music sounds good sometimes but then it sounds shit other times due to what mood you in do you listen to the whole album then write or do you write as you go i just wanna know is all anyways great blog

  7. Replies
    1. Hell yeah nicest gangsta rapper I've ever met for real haha

  8. Ain't done yet Max, gotta jump on dat QB finest compilation OOCHIE WALLY WALLY