By Jesse Serwer
There's no precedent for Nas and Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley's "Distant Relatives." As much as their respective genres have exchanged with one another over the years, a major rapper and a major reggae artist have never released a full-length album together before. But were there even a template, this idiosyncratic concept album threaded around the artists' shared African ancestry (and that continent's modern-day plight) would probably still feel anomalous and unexpected.
Produced mostly by Marley himself (his half brother Stephen also contributes three tracks), the album shifts restlessly between tense, organic hip-hop, mellow reggae and ethereal samples of African artists such as Amadou & Mariam and Mulatu Astatke.
But the whole of "Distant Relatives" is more harmonious than expected following the clunky, awkward lead single and album opener, "As We Enter." Inspired lyrical performances from both artists imbue "Leaders," "Friends" and "Count Your Blessings" with great gravitas, while "My Generation" is relatively less cheesy than a track pairing Joss Stone and Lil Wayne with a children's chorus should be.
But while Marley gives strong vocal performances throughout, his partner - as he has so often in his career - is often guilty of coasting. Even on "Nah Mean," a pitch right into Nas's East Coast boom-bap rap strike zone, the MC leaves the heavy lifting to Marley. As with the entire album, it's still a strong statement, but it probably could have been more than that.
Recommended tracks: "Leaders," "Land of Promise," "Nah Mean"