Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"Collision": A Review of Distant Relatives by Nas & Damian Marley

Seemingly from ever since the beginning of both art forms, there has been a concerted effort to combine Dancehall and Hip-Hop. As the story goes, there were several individuals (like DJ Kool Herc) who were Jamaican and Caribbean who helped give birth to Hip-Hop, largely by taking from what they had at home, in terms of Dancehall culture and tangible Dancehall fixtures and staples (like the Sound System) and applying it to an American (and particularly New York) audience and pool of artists. And besides that, you’ll always hear about the connection of the ‘typical’ groups of individuals who tend to veer towards the music (although I think this has effectively changed due to the MASSIVE globalization of Hip-Hop in particular) in both cases, being from the ghetto and seeking away out and a mental escape as well from their troubles. With the various similarities between the two genres, of course the effort would go in the direction of combining the two in a manner where it would be most commercially successful and we’ve seen that in many ways through the years. The most notable until now, perhaps, was a compilation by the name of Def Jamaica, back in 2003. That very interesting release featured some of the biggest names in the Hip-Hop arena (such as Jay-Z, Cam’Ron and even Scarface), alongside some of the biggest names from the Dancehall and Reggae world (like Beenie Man, Buju Banton and even the Marley Bros.). While better than expected, I don’t think that release as very successful in terms of sales (as evident by the fact that it was nearly seven years ago and . . . Def Jamaican Vol. 2???) and thus it wasn’t the ‘be all, end all’ release for combining the two genres that it may’ve been thought to be. And there’re also ARTISTS like Foxy Brown, Wyclef Jean and others who’ve rather consistently made themselves visible on both sides and, even on the biggest stages of their careers, they’ve sought to incorporate the music of their Caribbean heritages. Still, I can’t think of anything and certainly not anything recently, done to the magnitude of this particular release. Not only that, but taken in the respect of what it actually is (technically speaking, there is no actual Dancehall involved), I’m pretty damn sure there’s NEVER been something like this release which incorporates two bonafide superstars in their respective genres, in (or relatively close to) their respective primes. Such a thing, merely on paper, could potentially be a landmark release.

And perhaps you can tell that it might be a landmark release based on the fact that when longtime Hip-Hop superstar Nas and son of the King and a bonafide Reggae superstar in Damian ‘Jr. Gong’ Marley linked up to make Distant Relatives, it seemed as if the ‘communities’ of both genres (and beyond) took CONSIDERABLE notice. To say it flat out - I don’t know if we’ve seen a more discussed Reggae-ish album release in . . . a few decades and with the type of communication we have these days, you could very well make the case that it’s one of the most anticipated releases of Reggae-ish music EVER. And you know what? It’s all deserved. Of course I don’t know much about Hip-Hop, but Nas is certainly one of the most respected masters of the craft and although Jr. Gong typically flows just outside of the ‘typical’ channels within Reggae (for obvious reasons), he ranks just as highly in the same category in his genre of music as well and of course, like I said, they’re both SUPERSTARS at what they do. Also, the duo gave a bit of a preview in the form of ‘Road To Zion’, a very well received tune from Gong’s most recent (Grammy winning) studio album from 2005, Welcome To Jamrock. That album was also instrumental in introducing Nesta’s youngest son to the Hip-Hop world as the title track played (and continues to) nonstop on avenues where Hip-Hop was the dominant sound. Damian Marley currently (and ESPECIALLY now) enjoys a very uplifted status in that world and one could make the case that, despite the inherent popularity of his name, his name is arguably a household one in the Hip-Hop world. As for Nas, while he hasn’t quite endeared himself to the Reggae world tangibly (apart from ’Road To Zion’), he is definitely regarded as one of the greatest practitioners of Hip-Hop in the world today, which alone makes him one of the most popular musicians alive, also for the way in which Nas is regarded - Being a DOMINANT lyricist (he actually pushed the last pure Hip-Hop tune that I actually liked, ‘One Mic’ many moons ago) and one who often goes on more conscious topics than many of his peers, it’s certainly something which would appeal to hardcore Reggae heads like you and I. The album also has obvious Afrikan ties and reportedly some of the proceeds it generates will go to do works in the continent as well. So! The only remaining question is whether or not the music is good - Well . . . The most interesting thing here, going in, would definitely be the actual musical direction of Distant Relatives. You could’ve probably gotten ANY producer in either Reggae/Dancehall or Hip-Hop to produce the album, but production works mainly go to the Marley Bros. and reportedly there was a large deal of live instrumentation implemented as well. However, before you think that they ultimately sent up a line of one-drops for Nas and Jr. Gong to voice over, you might not want to go quite that far just yet as the ‘riddims’, for the most part, seem to kind of drift between the two genres and actually, by its end, I think it actually favours Nas more and, in general, I think the album has been ‘aimed’ more at fans of Hip-Hop. I’ve enjoyed doing the research for it as I’ve had to go on a lot of the Hip-Hop sites, which I almost never do, and so far they’ve been reviewing it VERY strong (allhiphop.com actually gave it a perfect score apparently) and I think that’s ultimately where the album will make its greatest impact. As for Reggae heads like you and me, however, it remains to be seen and heard - So let’s see and hear!

I thought that the title of the album was absolutely outstanding. Given the aforementioned related backgrounds of the two genres, as well as the Afrikan ties of the album, you REALLY come up with something wonderful when you give it the title Distant Relatives and the music, which is kind of ‘lost’ somewhere between Reggae and Hip-Hop (and I mean that in the best possible way), it’s almost like two ‘distant relatives’ meeting on neutral ground in a sense. The very first tune on the album, the fun ‘As We Enter’ (which was one of the 200 or so pre-release singles for the ridiculously well promoted album), kind of takes on the title of the album in an indirect way. “As we enter, come mek we tek you pon di biggest adventure”, Jr. Gong says, seemingly in observance the magnitude of the musical journey on which the listener is about to embark. This tune took quite awhile to grow on me because it’s kind of odd, but you get to the point where the skill of the back and forth wordplay simply just has to impress, despite the rather somber disco/playful nature of the riddim backing the duo on the tune which simply announces the presence of the rest of the album. Said “rest of the album” begins with the very first of quite a few official combinations on Distant Relatives, the very solid ’Tribal War’, which features K'Naan, a name which is becoming increasingly familiar to me. The Somalian born rapper toured with the Marley Bros. and has been popping up on quite a few mixtapes as well (and he even gets another go on this album). The tune is an update to the pretty much CLASSIC Reggae song and while it has another rather strange vibes with it, I simply have to give credit where it’s due, K'Naan SMASHES this thing with his BRILLIANT verse, arguably outshining both of his superstar song mates. The tune itself has another very strong message and it was right about here where I started to realize how this is probably best received amongst Reggae fans (more on that later). Lastly of the opening lot is another previously released song (thankfully I didn’t pay much attention to the pre-releases, personally, so many (I.e. ALL) of the tunes are very fresh to me), ‘Strong Will Continue’. I don’t like the backing to this one at all; it’s pretty pedestrian, with its ‘BIG’ and electric sound. But it doesn’t matter as the tune ultimately provides the album’s first jaw dropping moment in the form of the CRAZY torrent of words dropped by Nas at the end of the song. It almost seems like he decided to do it as bonus of sorts to the tune (should’ve known it with that >6:00 time) which speaks on the power of rising to the occasion (biggup Sizzla) and being strong when times turn terrible. All in all, the album has a most interesting and revealing beginning.

Because of the way Distant Relatives is vibed (and after I saw the tracklist), I thought that it would shine the brightest when you could bring the ‘relatives’ closest together at a proper and equal distance from their own bases. I didn’t think Nas could catch (consistent) fire over an old school one-drop riddim (even though he tries and does well) and I didn’t think that Jr. Gong could give his best across a heavy Hip-Hop beat. I was right in my guess. The two meet on very even terms on the album’s biggest tune when the MASSIVE ‘Dispear’ rolls in. ‘Dis’ song is HEAVY! You can call it a little bit of Hip-Hop with the overall ‘mood’ of the tune, you can call it a bit of Reggae with that KNOCK that the riddim, but in either case, this one breaths fire throughout as the dynamic duo make a play on the word ‘despair’ with ‘this spear’, which seemingly becomes the HANDLE for the revolution. Lyrically it’s one of the finest tunes on the album and the vibe here is something just on a higher level than anything else I hear on Distant Relatives. MAMMOTH tune.

‘Dispear’ is nearly the antithesis, in terms of vibes (the messages are actually quite similar if you really analyze them), and to the tune which it follows ’Count Your Blessings’. This tune is actually quite sweet and with its kind of ‘funky’ vibes, it’s probably the clear choice as the most colourful of changeups to be offered by this album (and I can see a very nice video coming from this one as well although I don’t think it’s going to happen. A couple of tunes, ‘In His Own Words’ (which features Stephen Marley) and the loaded ‘My Generation’, also have a kind of ‘bright’ sounding vibes to them as well. I’m not very fond of either, however. The latter, which features both Joss Stone (who I’d never heard of, but apparently she’s a very popular R&B singer from out of the UK) (who can sing her ass off!) and Hip-Hop superstar Lil’ Wayne (who I have heard of), is probably the stronger of the two with the two features artists taking center stage. The overall vibes of the tune (with the kids singing behind Stone) is kind of sappy and I wasn’t enthused about Lil Wayne’s offering either (might be looking more into Ms. Stone, however). As for ‘In His Own Words’, it’s a decent tune, but wholly unremarkable in my opinion, with obligatory acoustic-ish set. And all three of these tunes are polar opposites to the downright skeletal ‘Patience’ which definitely requires quite a bit of just that to take in fully (seriously, this one should have said ‘featuring Vaughn Benjamin’ on it). The tune features a large sample from Amadou & Mariam’s tune ‘Sabali’ (Welcome To Mali album, which I suppose is about to become suddenly very popular) (good for them). This song certainly isn’t BAD, but it never really achieves a ‘lift off’ and the lyrics aren’t terribly over impressive either.

There’re two tracks on the album which serve SO interesting as opposites by ‘dragging’ one artist into the world of the other and although, like I said, I don’t think that it’s something which would have been consistently successful, done in moderation, I think it’s absolutely wonderful and certainly part of the reason why we would want to focus on such an album so hard. ‘Nah Mean’ is a straight Hip-Hop track and with Marley’s dexterity (and his FIRE), he handles it with no problem and attacks a level which is barely met by his partner, completely at home on the track, which is basically a social commentary and definitely one of the biggest tunes on the album. On the opposite end of the scale is ‘Land Of Promise’, which is serious Reggae and a take on the immortal Dennis Brown’s (and Aswad’s) tune, ‘Promised Land’. Nas handles the tune excellently (and actually drops THE line of the tune when he says, “. . . this where the truth’s told. Use those two holes above your nose to see the proof yow”). Brown’s original vocals are also present on the tune (as is that impenetrable riddim) and again, it’s one of the best tunes to be found on Distant Relatives. The earlier tune, ‘Leaders’ (which also features Stephen), is also pretty heavily Reggae and it’s also one of the better tunes here. It’s somewhat somber in terms of the vibes, but LYRICALLY this is about as impressive tune you’ll find here. The song speaks with a kind of a two sidedness in that - It’s speaking to ‘the leaders’ (“let’s all change the world”), but it’s also speaking to a dearth of actual and tangible leaders as well. Seriously this tune is one best appreciated over a period of time, but even if you do try to take it more superficially the vibes here are also immediately gratifying as well. That tune precedes a song in ‘Friends’ which also is pretty nice and immediately so. The song, also, is very impressive lyrically as the two speak on the importance and virtues of good friends. In the process, Marley even references the late Daddigon, which is always such a nice thing to do.

The final tune on Distant Relatives brings things back to the GOAL of the album to a degree in reference to the proceeds it generates apparently. ‘Africa Must Wake Up’ is another tune featuring the aforementioned K'Naan and while his contribution isn’t as destructively brilliant (and of course it‘s also in Somali, but you can read the translation) as it was on ‘Tribal War’, this tune may just be better than that one. I love the kind of colourful mood of the tune (it almost sounds like something from Fela Kuti’s catalogue) and it speaks to knowledge on a very high level as well. Truly, there’re better moments on the album, but I don’t know if there was a more fitting and proper tune to end the album. Excellent choice (and somewhere, Hugh Mundell is smiling).

Overall (this may take awhile), yes - It is a very big album, but there are conditions to its BIGness. First of all, as I alluded to, even though the Marleys largely helm the production for Distant Relatives, it seems to be more guided to a Hip-Hop crowd. For example, while I’m very happy that the name ‘Dennis Brown’ is about to become much more well known in Hip-Hop circles, the only current Reggae artist on the album besides Jr. Gong is Stephen (and over the years, they’ve kind of become a ‘packaged deal’ of sorts with one not appearing, to any substantial degree, without the other and certainly that’s fine). That certainly makes sense, appealing to Hip-Hop fans is a hell of a lot more likely to sell you albums than appealing to Reggae heads, however, I have to admit that had the album featured the likes of Bounty Killer, Capleton, Spragga Benz, Yami Bolo or any of the other well known Reggae artists with whom the Marleys have associated over the years, I may have flatly giggled with delight (with absolutely no shame about it either) (and almost shockingly Julian Marley isn’t even here). Still, it certainly shouldn’t be viewed as a total (tangible) lost to Reggae fans either and I’ll tell you why. If you look at Distant Relatives very closely with a careful eye towards the lyrical aspect of the album, you’re going to be VERY impressed. Again, I don’t know a lot about Hip-Hop or a lot about Nas’ music in particular, however, the subjectry on this album - With it’s direction being heavily geared towards the social aspect of the world - is something heavy Reggae fans are more than just ‘used to’ dealing with on a consistent basis and also Damian’s fans, in particular. And I feel like I should reiterate the fact that while I, personally, aren’t a big fan of Hip-Hop, you can certainly be a fan of both and be so deeply and in which case, this may be one of the greatest albums you’ve ever heard in your entire life. I do think that its greatest impact will come in the Hip-Hop arena where apparently they’re already eating it up and declaring it one of the best albums of the year. To me (and probably you), however, it’s still very strong and it’s ‘the new Damian Marley album’, which is a big ass deal. It’s not great and I’m not falling over myself dealing with it, but Distant Relatives is BIG album and we certainly hope it does so well. Well done.

Rated 4/5
Universal Republic/Def Jam


  1. Standing with one foot in reggae and one foot in hip hop (and more alternative rap), I've been waiting for this one. I like the variation of the tracks and flows and it's great to hear lyrics with some real meaning in a big release like this one. Musically though, I sort of feel like there is something missing for this to be as GREAT as it potentially could have been. With that being said, this is still a very good album and I wont be surprised if I end up placing it very far up on my best-releases-of-the-year-list.

    Top three tracks: Friends, Land of Promice, Nah Mean


    PS. Get Lil' Wayne out of there! DS.

  2. Wow, can you write. I enjoyed reading the review and yeah lengthy is good, as long as its official. I like what you said and though I've heard only a few tracks, I think this album will put the Marley Brothers on the map.

    Also, other notables that Damian Marley has collaborated with after reading your article, I researched some other songs. His other crossover is with B Real from Cypress Hill called Fire. He's sang with Mariah Carey, Samantha Mumba, Alicia Keys, Ludacris, Snoop Dogg and K'naan (who just recently heard of too but seen the name for a bit before hearing him). I'm sure I'll find a bit more later.

    Ziggy on the otherhand is touring with Jack Johnson, just got back from Hawaii.

    I give you absolute credit in your reviews and impressed with the amount of reggae your familiar with. I love that groove, too.

    Thanks for posting.

  3. Give thanks FIF and Gus.

    FIF I do remember,a little, the tune with Cypress Hill and Snoop Dog. I had no idea about Samantha Mumba, Alicia Keys and Ludacris though yeah.

    Thanks again my friend.