Peanut butter is great. Chocolate is great. Mix them together, and it's still great.
Nas is great. Damian Marley is good. Mix them together, and...well that's the big question behind Distant Relatives, the collaboration album between the two artists. Nas has proven himself time and again that he is one of the greatest lyrical rappers ever, but recently his career has become increasingly irrelevant and his presence is merely forgotten. Nasty Nas was unable to keep up with the times because most of his songs carry very little mainstream appeal. For some this is great because it shows that he is not willing to 'sell out' but on the other hand what's the point of being credible if it's not getting you anywhere. Damian Marley also has issues with living up to the past, but it is not his own past he's worried about. That's what being the youngest son of the most renowned reggae artist in the world gets you, and critics have always compared his efforts to that of his father's.
So what happens when you mix them together? Distant Relatives proves that the two have a powerful chemistry and that they bring out their best qualities from one another.
Those who are concerned that the unorthodox collaboration will sound 'weird' or 'off', feel free to put those concerns to rest. Damian Marley, while usually working the chorus, brings along his most compelling work to date. Nas also provides his most inspired rapping in years thanks to the flexible but sophisticated concept of Distant Relatives.
The two show off a powerful companionship throughout the album, but truly excel in a few special moments. "As We Enter", the first and best song on the album, shows off the two ferociously swapping deft verses over a hard hitting lo-fi beat. Immediately after there is "Tribal War", which also features a great K'Naan, is a highlight thanks to its unique and fantastic African-inspired instrumental of tribal drums. A potential summer hit comes in the form of "Count Your Blessings" with its upbeat guitar-led production and Marley providing a hypnotic rasp on the chorus. Speaking of hypnotic, ranking among the best from Distant Relatives is the oddly beautiful "Patience" where Damian leads the song with a deep introspective musing over human nature which Nas continues to great effect. The album ends with the perfect "Africa Must Wake Up" featuring a flawless chorus by Marley, impeccable rapping from Nas, and even K'Naan returns to rap in his native language Swahili. To top off an already great song, the slow drumming violin-led beat beautifully melts into a fantastic electric guitar beat and it is effortless for me to say that it is the single best instrumental, rap or reggae, I have ever heard.
No album is without its faults and, while Distant Relatives is also not impervious to mistakes, the ones it makes do little to detract from the whole. "Land of Promise" is disappointing due to its decidedly unappealing beat. The song with the heaviest amount of hype is "My Generation", which attempts to be the feel-good song of the album with Joss Stone singing on the hook and Lil Wayne to reinforce its buzz. Instead the song comes across as overwrought and just fails to be memorable in any real way. And those are the only real issues I have with Distant Relatives because it gets a lot right.
The album, despite being a charity effort for poverty in Africa and sharing a similar concept about the continent, seldom crosses into "charity case" quality. Nas and Damian Marley went to great lengths to make this album sound good while keeping things original and for the most part have achieved their goal of accessibility. Instead of being preachy, the duo has managed to make Distant Relatives one of the most insightful rap albums in recent history and extends its metaphor of Africa to symbolize the world.
Even if you only have a passing interest in reggae or rap, you really cannot go wrong with Distant Relatives. Fun, easy on the ears, and thought-provoking, the album is guaranteed to make the combination of peanut butter and chocolate seem revolting.