Taking the genres' shared heritage as its inspiration, the new album by Nas and Damian Marley is as well executed as it is well-meaning.
Distant Relatives: an inspired fusion of reggae and hip-hop
Ever since its birth on the gritty, late-1970s streets of New York's South Bronx, hip-hop has enjoyed a tangled and complex relationship with reggae. Now a monolithic, global presence, rap music's history is almost universally accepted as falling into a conveniently and uniquely American narrative of hardscrabble multiculturalism and pioneering creative drive. However, the reality is that the world's first block parties happened in Kingston and the earliest rappers were, in fact, Jamaican. There is even a plausible case for suggesting that, were it not for the importation of Caribbean dancehall culture to the United States, which brought with it mobile soundsystems and deejays (MCs), the very foundations of hip-hop would, to this day, remain unlaid.
Both genres have long been uneasy bedfellows, each willing to take inspiration from the other but only occasionally achieving the kind of fusions they, by rights, should be eminently capable of making. By way of evidence, for every fresh and vibrant blend, there exist countless lukewarm guest appearances and lacklustre collaborations in which Jamaican artists are drafted in to add a dash of jerk-spiced exoticism to the tried and tested formulae of US hip-hop and R&B.
Distant Relatives, the latest in a long line of reggae/hip-hop hybrid projects, teams two titans of each style: Bob Marley's youngest son, Damian, and one of the most critically acclaimed rappers of all time, Nasir "Nas" Jones. As an album, it sets out its conceptual stall early. The title refers to its authors' shared membership of the African diaspora and the commonalities of the styles with which each is synonymous. While Afrocentric ideology and the remembrance of colonial misdeeds are integral to reggae's Rastafarian credo, such concerns also form a core strand of hip-hop's DNA, from the Native Tongues collective to the DJ and producer Afrika Bambaataa's community-action group, the Zulu Nation.
Hip-hop's heritage of grassroots activism is also reflected in Distant Relatives' backstory. Proceeds from the album will be used to fund development projects in Africa, including the construction of a new school in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. So, at its most basic levels, this is both an exercise in global fusion and a charity fundraising venture. For many people - this reviewer included - finding out that a record falls into either of these categories is just cause for trepidation. Happily, Marley and Nas defuse such cynicism rapidly, expertly commingling musical styles and approaching serious issues with vibrant, incisive and above all joyful wordplay.
The opening As We Enter is a gloriously uptempo reggae skanker - with a difference. While Marley and Nas's lyrical interplay is a pleasure in itself, the most striking thing about this song is its instrumentation, which incorporates a large sample of the Ethiopian jazz maestro Mulatu Astatke's 1971 track Yegelle Tezeta. Given the album's main themes, this is a wonderfully apt interpolation, one that links hip-hop's collaging of dusty jazz and soul breaks with roots reggae's spiritual connection to the East African nation.
Tribes At War, meanwhile, is more explicitly Jamaican, lifting a ghostly vocal refrain from the reggae singer Little Roy's roots standard Tribal War, then adding African percussion, a soaring string section and woozy synthesiser lines. Mirroring Little Roy's version, Marley's lyrics address the futility of conflict, whether street against street or nation against nation. Unlike the original, though, this is a globalised, 21st-century take on the form, one in which Marley's contemplative vocals give way to militant hip-hop flows by Nas and the Somali-born guest rapper K'naan.
Count Your Blessings appears to be an attempt at light relief, Marley's blend of optimistic vocals and summery acoustic guitar strumming providing a direct reference to his father's musical legacy. Unfortunately, it is also one of the few moments where the collaborative aspect of Distant Relatives falls flat. While Marley's part is considered, polished, sensitively rendered, Nas's contributions feel tacked on at best, at worst like unwelcome interruptions. If nothing else, someone should certainly have told him that, no matter how much you might want it to, "Earth, Wind [and Fire]" will never rhyme with "Gershwin".
Still, these minor concerns disappear with the opening bars of Land of Promise, a track that is both the album's standout moment and, in its own way, a lesson in reggae history. The song opens with snippets of an interview with the legendary Dennis Brown, an artist referred to by Bob Marley himself as the "crown prince of reggae", and a figure who many believed would go on to become the genre's international ambassador after Marley's death from cancer in 1981. While Brown's career never quite reached those heights, he did visit Africa for the first time shortly after Marley's passing.
This journey proved a key point in the singer's life. He returned to London so inspired that he rushed to into the studio with the British band Aswad. The song that resulted from this impromptu session - the soundsystem anthem Promised Land - is liberally sampled here. Echoing the structure of Damian Marley's previous global triumph Welcome To Jamrock, a track that reinterpreted Ini Kamoze's classic World A Music, Brown's vocals and Aswad's rubbery bass lines provide the backbone of the song. However, the chemistry between Marley and Nas is what lifts it to the next level. Both artists are clearly having the time of their lives, and their excitement is infectious.
Similarly, the melodic hook of Patience is provided by a chunk of the Malian husband and wife duo Amadou & Mariam's 2008 gem Sabali. Lifting vast slabs of previously released songs may sound lazy and uninspired to many ears, especially those accustomed to the more fragmented cut-and-paste aesthetic of hip-hop. However, this style of production echoes a tried and tested reggae technique, known as "versioning", wherein backing tracks (or "riddims") are recorded and then voiced numerous times by a variety of different artists. Taking inspiration from such well-loved source material is also, as Marley and Nas prove throughout Distant Relatives, a sure-fire way to engage an audience.
This sense of enthusiasm and approachability is written all over Africa Must Wake Up - an initially laid-back piano and strings number that gradually builds into what in most other hands might be a predictable, schmaltzy showbiz-style finale. Luckily, Marley and Nas walk the fine line between sentimentality and emotive power in sure-footed style. This sense of balance is the album's defining characteristic. Despite its all-star cast and worthy intentions, Distant Relatives is, above and beyond anything else, a good record. In fact, if you're generous enough to ignore Joss Stone's appearance alongside Lil Wayne on My Generation, there's barely a bad moment on it. What is especially gratifying, though, is Marley and Nas's bravery. Collaborations are fraught with peril for any artist and, approached unwisely, are capable of doing untold damage to a performer's career. Here, both men have delivered an immensely enjoyable piece of work; an album that is generous in its aims and with its rewards.
John Eden is the founding editor of Woofah, a London-based reggae and British MC culture fanzine. His work also appears in The Wire and FACT magazine.