By the end of the Best of Both Worlds Tour in November 2004, Jay-Z and R. Kelly were at each other’s throats. Their two collaboration albums, criticized for being uninspired and redundant, sat in shelf dust while the two bickered over tour profits. They were scathing radio interviews and subpoenas. Then came the paranoid illusions of gun-toting concertgoers and the infamous pepper spray incident. Oh and let’s not forget all the prima donna mid-performance walk-offs in between.
The point is when two breadwinners get to together to do a joint album, there is a certain management—or mismanagement--of egos required. This general truth swims in the mind of even the most optimistic critics. They can’t help but ask themselves if Nas and Damian Marley, arguably the Kobe and Lebron of the conscious black aesthetic, can reconcile their respective spheres of dominance and produce one shared effort.
Logically speaking, Distant Relatives, the duo’s collaboration project may be all but destined for mediocrity. Look at it this way, do we expect or even think it’s possible for Nas and Marley to develop in one LP what it took Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton years to cultivate? At the very base level, some awkward blind-datishness is unavoidable.
Let’s not get it twisted, the album’s uncurbed afrocentricity for all its self-righteous didacticism, is downright cleansing. “Tribal War” grants access to a fraternity of progressive thinkers as Nas and Damian invite fellow Pan-africanist K’Naan to lyrically renew Africa’s cultural contribution to the world. K’Naan’s verse in particular, stirs up a gourd of conscious gumbo that remixes Mandela, conflict diamonds, and Black Dalai Lamas over an ethnic chorus and drums that could have come directly from the Serengeti. But still there’s an element of contrivance amiss in songs like “Strong Will Continue” where Damian’s melodious patois and Nas’s street corner linguistics exist in separate realms despite being on the same track.
Regrettably, only a few cuts demarcate where the two artists have agreed to defer to one another. Those songs, which allow Nas a moment to bask in his own laid-back stylings or Damian a moment of rapid fire proselytizing, of course, come off the most natural. For instance, the easy reggae guitar riff nor the understated hook on “Leaders” must have taken an atlas of thought to conceive, but they grant Nas an unthreatened forum to imagine himself at the “Audobon, Malcolm on the podium/ Shells drop to linoleum/ Swipe those place them on display at the Smithsonian.” Likewise Damian Marley gets free reign to spit, “Kingstonians are real blood fiends/ The world is a big crime scene” on the catalyzing “Nah Mean”.
The other issue is preachiness and the thin string that separates a song like “Count Your Blessings” that thrives off its own acoustic humility from the cheesy “My Generation” which enlists a paradoxical Lil Wayne and the cliché kiddie choir (side note: imagine if it were same children that did all these songs. They’d be ready to unionize by now). When done in a haphazard way, these “positive” songs make the shoot-em-up, kilo-moving ballads sound not so bad.
What distinguishes Distant Relatives from the audio cash cow some cynics may purport it to be lies in the album’s first tier lyricism. It’s not just a stream of catch phrases that gloss over terms like Garveyism and Babylon, but a mobile form of verbal activism. Most tangibly, a percent of the proceeds from the album go to a school in the Congo. True, music in America can’t exist without a capitol motive (hearing a snippet of the lead single “As We Enter” on HBO’s “How to Make it in America” is like seeing Ishmael Beah’s child soldier memoir on being sold on a Starbucks kiosk), but the two musical figureheads have still managed to make the world a better place, an act which waves a flashlight at the proud ghosts of Bob Marley and Fela Kuti.