Despite how unlikely a tag team Nas and Damian Marley make, they complement each other pretty well on “Distant Relatives,” an album featuring both of them released on Tuesday, probably because neither of them takes up too much of the spotlight. There’s never a sense that either of them is tagging along with the other – without the two of them pitching in on every song, the material wouldn’t have quite the same effect.
It helps that they’ve got a theme they can sink their teeth into, and while Nas’ music has dealt with Africa in the past, he apparently has enough to say about it to hold down a whole album. With Marley onboard, he can dig deeper into it than ever before.
While hip hop and reggae both have roots in Africa, Marley and Nas are very aware of how far these genres have come from their source. They still celebrate their lineage on their own terms, though. An example of this can be found in the album’s centerpiece “Africa Must Wake Up,” which seems angry not only at the marginalization of Africana but at the modern-day myopia that led to it.
The message is just as desperate on “Tribes at War,” a two-fisted tirade that deals with both the diamond trade and black-on-black crime. With so many people of color victimizing each other in the United States, there’s an urgency here that’s closer to home than you might expect.
What’s nice about having both Marley and Nas on hand is that even if there’s a song where one of them isn’t quite in his element, the other one is there to step in and give it its strength.
For all of the ambition Marley brings to “Patience,” Nas’ focus is what makes the whole thing work in the end. Likewise, Marley is so enchanting on “Count Your Blessings” that even when Nas gets a few bars with enough charge for him to rap over, the spirit Marley gives it overshadows him.
Of course, that material is in Marley’s comfort zone, which is probably why he knocks it out of the park.
For dealing with a project as bold as this one, Marley and Nas should be commended for making it work as well as it does. It’s never easy to approach this material without making it sound like a social-studies lecture, but Marley and Nas find a way to avoid all that by focusing on what makes it so attractive to them.
At a time when lots of big names struggle to break new ground, these two managed to do it by bringing hip hop back to its roots.
This article originally appeared on AllMediaNY.