It is no secret to many of you that I view art not as a product, but as a vehicle for culture. Nas and Damian Marley’s Distant Relatives project brings this philosophy to the forefront of two genres of music. As a fan of both artists, as a lover of Hip-Hop and Reggae, as a participant in the culture, as a writer, and as a part of the African Diaspora, I believe this album to be a milestone. Not only is Distant Relatives an album, it is a documentary. Through multiple outlets, Distant Relatives explored the connections between Hip-Hop, Reggae, and Africa. In December, the National Geographic Society sponsored a panel discussion at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC on the bridge between the cultures of Hip-Hop & Reggae, with Distant Relatives as the frame of reference. The event was moderated by hip-hop journalist and personality Sway, who began the night by interviewing Nasir & Damian, and broadened the discussion to include DJ Kool Herc, amongst pioneers from both genres.
Then there is the album, which was released 1 day prior to Malcolm X’s birthday.
I’m going in depth with this review because I truly believe it to be one of the most groundbreaking collaborative albums since John Coltrane & Duke Ellington released their joint album. So take that as a warning that this is the LONGEST review that I have ever written in my life. The project deserves deep analysis, and I want you to be able to read the lyrics that frame my views of each track, and the album as a whole.
1. As We Enter
Nas: “And my man can speak Patois, and I speak rap star/y’all feel me, even if it’s in Swahili, Habari Gani”
Jr. Gong: “Nzuri Sana! Switch up the language and move to Ghana”
Distant Relatives opens with “As We Enter”, a track with booming bass and a Nas laced chorus. Junior Gong & God’s Son trade bars effortlessly throughout the track. Although this opening track is not concerned with the album’s topic, it does remind us of how natural a collaboration this partnership is. “Road to Zion” was only a preview, and the witty back and forth is a fun track to bump. I call it a lyrical appetizer, and it is smooth enough to replay, especially in the whip.
2. Tribal War feat. K’naan
We have moved from the introduction of our narrators on this journey to the meat & potatoes: the Pan-African subject matter of Distant Relatives. Strings, drums, and a heavy synthesizers blare as the instrumental. Damian’s chorus and beginning of Nas 1st verse set the stage:
CHORUS – Jr. Gong
TRIBAL WAR,WE NUH WANT NO MORE A DAT/Every man deserve to earn/And every child deserve to learn, now/TRIBAL WAR A NUH DAT WE A DEFEND/Every man deserve a turn/Like Babylon deserve to burn
Man what happened to us?/Geographically they moved us From Africa/We was once happiness pursuers/Now we back stabbing, combative and abusive /The African and Arab go at it they most Muslim/Used to be moving in unison
This track reflects on the divisions between African people on the continent and abroad, and the blood shed over gang & tribal warfare. K’naan makes a meaningful contribution in verse 2, where he speaks as the African continent personified:
I drink poison, then I vomit diamonds/I gave you Mandela, Black Dalai Lamas/I gave you music, you enthused in my kindness/so how dare you reduce me to Donny Imus
Junior closes out the track with a standout verse examining the specific tensions that young Africans, particularly young black men, “war” over:
Man a war Tribal, Over Colors/Over Money, overland, and over oil, and over God/And over Idols, and even lovers/Over breakfast, over dinner, over suppers/Over Jungle, over Rema, over Buckers/Over Brooklyn, over Queens, and over Rutgers/Over Red, and over Blue, and over Chuckers/Over Red and over Blue and Undercovers/Tribal trouble, The drive bys double/Cause the youth dem nah go war/And go fight with knuckle..
“Tribal War” explores the fall from grace of African people, the violence that lies between us, and invokes thought without being preachy. Rather than overly state that, and suggest how we should act differently and change, Jones, Marley, & K’naan hold up a mirror with this track and allow us to clearly see the ways in which the limbs have harmed the body.
3. Strong Will Continue
Chorus: When the Armageddon start get dread (I get up and make it happen)/A lot of weak heart a weep and moan (I get up and we get it crackin)/Only the strong will continue/Do you have it in you?/Cause we’ve got a journey to go!/And when the battle get sour and dread(I get up and I get it goin)/A lot of weak hear a wither and moan (I get up and we get it flowin)/Only the strong will continue/I know you have it in you/I know you have it in you
The Victory is found in Truth/Like Innocence found in Youth/Self-defeat is your own dispute/And when you put yourself/Inna your own shoes – Jr. Gong (Nas)
As I would through the valley of the shadow of death/New York to Cali, for the money power respect/It’s a journey, some will get left behind/’cause in life you can not press rewind/Get it right, you only have one first chance/To make one first impression that lasts a lifetime – Nas
This song has a very special place in my heart, and has been THE song that has carried me through 4 very difficult weeks. The track is injected with an amazing ability to shift my moods, and uplift. This is musical encouragement at its FINEST. The track gradually builds, and sounds epic. This is the kind of music that you train boxers to, sprint to, lift to, that makes you soar in acrobatic somersaults through glass ceilings and confining moments. Everything about this song stirs the desire to rise up and overcome any obstacle set in your path. The audience is obviously the entire African Diaspora, however the shift from the original portion of the track to Nas’ final verse, brings it to a moment of catharsis for Nas. While I connect to the entire track, I connect most to Nas’ decision to lay his personal life bare at the close of the song:
I’m a street lifer, always harassed by the sea ciphers/chief like Gerinimo with his peace pipe/I emerge from the street life/this is for the homies who relate, know what it be like/my QB life, take it and turn it to the Louis the XIII life/twisted and mangled sorta like Bruce Lee life/cursed with his son Brandon, if that’s you and me Knight/I pray that our fate is greater/ I speak life as I still matter as a rapper not doubting/even Toni Braxton signed a deal with Craig Kallman/how in the hell am I supposed to stay comfy/when I pay child support, alimony monthly/got Maserati’s and Ferrari’s, only like a woman who’s a rider/but only hos want me/single life crazy, niggas wives on me/I say “stay faithful”, they say their man corny/so I’m stuck with some married woman so fine/cheatin while they husband rushin on the 40 yard line/wonder if this is what my ex did the whole time/good niggas always seem to end up with some hard times, hope not/ If a pimp slippin’ in a hoe plot, ain’t nothing to it G/in a two-tone drop, kid/and it don’t stop, see a nigga disappearing with the baddest honey’s in the whole spot/Yeah!
The allusion to Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, I found especially touching. If you didn’t see that film, it may be difficult to grasp the Bruce/Brandon vs. Nasir/Knight allusion painted in this verse. Additionally, if you were not privy to the media’s allegations of Kelis cheating on Nas last year prior to all of the hoopla about him fucking some woman in Virginia, you may be upset by what would appear to be that traditional Nasir Jones contradictory set of lines. The line also may have refered to his daughter’s mother, Carmen. I have to give up to Nasir for putting it all on Front Street.
This song is a banger.
4. Leaders feat. Stephen Marley
This track is very much for me & mine. The slow reggae laced beat sets the stage for Nas’ tale of a young hustler who escapes the system, and is looked up to by young kids on the block. The track examines who we chose to appoint leaders, and whom we choose to follow. Damian’s verse peels back the layer laid by Nas, and brings us into the questioning mind of a black youth:
Who do I follow?/Who do I copy?/Look in to the mirror/and it’s you I see look at me/everything new, like it fresh from the factory/everything you do, it impact me/your lifestyle attract me, parents try distract me/when I grow up, I want to be like you exactly. – Junior Gong
To close the song, Nas reflects on what happened to our real leaders:
I can see myself back at the Audubon/ Malcolm on the podium, shells drop to linoleum/Swipe those, place ‘em on display at the Smithsonian/next to only gems hat were left behind by holy men/infectious charisma of those who gave us direction/the anti sexist resistance against oppression/progressive thinking/ghetto speakers, protestors against the colored only section/ to the Jena 6 and The Frost Nixon/the contradiction/the cross the crucifixion/ the loss we took for sinning/on Esau’s back inscription/that it was written, that nothing is coincidence‘n/they took our leaders and they lynched them
A frequent conversation with my community organizing contemporaries revolve around the concept of charismatic leadership versus a grassroots model. One thing that makes me personally connect to this track is the undertone of that conversation. What is it that makes an effective leader, and what is it that causes people to “follow” them? The act of having faith in a person is a kind of surrender, and the wisdom in “Leaders” lies in its questioning those to whom we choose to acquiesce.
5. Friends, 6. Count Your Blessings, 7. Dispear
“Friends” bangs with an African sample, syths, and drums. The chorus goes, “Of the real friends that serve you long/your memories might fade/your real friends will serve you long, sunshine or rain/your real friends will serve you long, acquaintances will fade… real friends don’t change”. Junior & Nas examine what determines a real friendship versus acquaintances and the inauthentic relationships that occur in life and in the music industry.
You real friends are in for all the wins and the losses… Real friends won’t sell you out… real men we have a code of ethics, no question, no jealousies, no feminine tendencies, we expecting no gossip, no phony logic, no counting your homey pocket… selfishness, that’s a character flaw
If you look at the verse lyrics alone, you cannot determine which writer wrote which. “Friends” is such a seamless and resounding track, that reading it almost as enthralling as hearing it. 9/10
“Count Your Blessings” boasts horns in its barrage of smooth, live instruments. The message, lightly sung Jr. Gong chorus, and Nas’ comparisons between the anticipation of the birth of his son, Knight, and his belief that the public will “praise him, and some will hate him cuz we buildin’ a nation, like Bob did with Damian”. This is the kind of song that makes you give thanks for what you have. Self-explanatory. It’s the smiling track of the album. 8/10
“Dispear” is a great play on words, and it teeters between the warrior’s aggression and rage against oppression, and the despair of the masses who find themselves under a neo-colonial and institutionally racist heel. I’m not going to spoil this one for you. All I can say is that it is lyrically complex, and filled with more references than I care to explain. With allusions to Melenek, the Mau Mau, Shaka Zulu, the Massai, Burning Spear, you will want to step your African history game up for this track.
“My mind is my modern day spear” – Nas
This track is SHARP.
8. Land of Promise (feat. Dennis Brown)
Welcome to the track that makes me shake phantom dreads, and wheel back dah track while mi lick shots pond eh air, two fingahs a blaze in salute to Jah. My inner (wannabe) Rasta goes NUTS when the beat drops. This is one of the BEST tracks on this album, and that is saying a lot. When I heard this track on the promo that I received last month, it solidified my expectation for this to be a classic album. Both verses are strong, however Damian KILLS the first verse, and Nas carries the body out and buries it. You get both verses here.
Imagine Ghana like California with Sunset Boulevard
Johannesburg would be Miami
Somalia like New York
With the most pretty light
The nuffest pretty car
Ever New Year the African Times Square lock-off
Imagine Lagos like Las Vegas
The Ballers dem a Ball
Angola like Atlanta
A pure plane take off
Bush Gardens inna Mali
Chicago inna Chad
Magic Kingdom inna Egypt
Philadelphia like Sudan
The Congo like Colorado
Fort Knox inna Gabon
People living in Morocco like the state of Oregon
Algeria warmer than Arizona bring your sun lotion
Early morning class of Yoga on the beach in Senegal
Ethiopia the capitol of fi di Congression
A deh so I belong
A deh di The King come from
I can see us all in limos
Jaguars and B’mos
“Riding on the King’s Highway” (Dennis Brown)
Promised Land I picture Porsches
Pinky Rings realistic princesses
Heiresses bunch a Kings and Queens
Plus I picture fortunes for kids out in Port-Au-Prince
Powerless they not allowed to fit
But not about to slip
Vision Promised Land with fashion like
Madison Ave Manhattan
Saks 5th Ave and
Relaxing popping labels
Promise Land no fables
This where the truth’s told
Use them two holes
Above your nose
To see the proof yo!
Imagine a contraption that could take us back when
The world was run by black men
Back to the future
Anything can happen
If these are the last days
And 100-food waves come crashing down
I get some hash and pounds
Pass around the bud then watch the flood
Can’t stop apocalypse
My synopsis is catastrophic
If satellites is causing earthquakes
Will we survive it
Honestly man it’s the sign of the times
And the times at hand
“There’s alot of work to be done, O gosh
In the Promised Land “ – Dennis Brown
This is one of the strongest uses of a sample I’ve heard since “Misunderstood” by Common and Lil’ Wayne. Not only did Distant Relatives do Dennis Brown’s “Promised Land” justice, they made it relevant and current to today’s world. Damian’s drawing of parallel lines between America and Africa is a strong concept of connecting the Diaspora to the motherland. The double entendre in the first line of having Sunset Blvd in Ghana made me smile and rewind at first listen. If you know African geography at all, the majority of the connections noted make sense, however the line of the “Magic Kingdom” being in Egypt is more philosophical and meta-physical than literal, which fits. Gabon being the home to “Fort Knox” makes sense due to the history of gold in Gabon, and of course Damian brings it home to Rasta by placing the capital of the continent in Ethiopia. That line is also an allusion to the fact that the earliest human remains are found in Ethiopia, and it can be considered the actual cradle of humanity. In antiquity, Kemeitic (ancient Egyptian) religion dictated that the gods came from the south, and pointed south to Nubia & ancient Ethiopia as being the origin of their civilization. Archeology in the 20th century has in essence dug up a late pass.
Nas may have been carrying out the body, but he doesn’t disappoint here. Flow wise, he struggles a little bit the with the beginning of the verse, but finds his groove rhythmically and lyrically. His imaginative time-travel device, warnings of the impending apocalypse, and referencing of the effect of man-made devices on the stability of the Earth is reminiscent of science-fiction, word to Octavia Butler. All in all, “Land of Promise” refers both to Africa and a state of mind that exists in a place that cannot be touched by the destruction of what exists in the material world. Both Jr. & Nas weave verses that invoke the listener to seek the “Promised Land” within through knowledge of self, achieved through knowledge of Africa.
9. In His Own Words feat. Stephen Marley
It is interesting to hear Damian Marley, a Rastafarian, and Nasir Jones, a 5 Percenter with a Christian upbringing create a song conversing about prayer and a personal relationship with the Most High. The echoing sentiment that Nas hammers in at the end of the first verse explains how this is possible, and is a model of reconciling religious differences in favor of a more universal approach:
Thought I saw Gods face/on the design in my vintage Claiborne /swear I see Him every day ya’ll
In a bus or the train or /the billboards out there that hang tall/I still give thanks for Him/have faith for Him/No matter what His name’s called – Nas
In the first bar of the verse, Nas likens his clothing to the Shroud of Turin, while simultaneously setting up a barrage of images that describe omnipresence. Damian piggybacks off this concept, and takes the pondering how to describe the Most High:
Can you think of a color that you never seen? /Can you reminisce on places you never been? … And all of us are more connected than it ever seemed /all things are related and creation is a package /generate together and we increase the wattage –Jr. Gong
Junior combines the concept of a personal relationship with God, and how that is able to empower a human being, with the concept of collective energy and the relationship between all of creation. The idea that “all things are related” is proven in science, as everything within existence is composed of energy, atomic particles, etc. We, in essence, are the same. Marley illustrates in this verse that there is truly power in unity (“generate together and we increase the wattage”).
As a student of Gnosticism, Hinduism, and many other cosmologies, I find this track to be spiritually refreshing in its openness, tolerance, and recognition of the Diving in everyone, and everything.
10. Nah Mean
Welcome to the most boom-bap track of the album.
Damian surprises here with a sing song flow, punctuating every other line with the hood mantra of “nah mean”:
We nuh like dem colonial regime
Ethiopian nuh like Mussoline
Mi Queen hafi rock and come in
And jump pon mi big trampoline
And boost up her self-esteem
That anti-colonial, Ethiopian vs. Mussolini couplet almost broke my neck, and I’m always for hearing uplifting black women by having them elevate. If you can’t read the triple entendre on that line, I will NOT spell it out for you here. Shout out to all of you ladies, big trampoline style… hahahaha.
Of course, Nas sounds VERY much at home here (thank God Salaam Remi was not involved!), and fires off a strong verse with more flow versatility than I’ve heard from the God MC in a while.
We celebrate like I finished probation
Notty Head with no chaser
From the mouth I can spit out a razor
Open up your facial like your boy Roy
In his prime
It’s great to hear that Nas is “spiritual like an Elohim”. As of late, it appears that Anne Jones’ son has escaped his reputation of lacing his lyrics with concepts and metaphors that are not fully fact checked.
This track is fun, although, like in real life, hearing “nah mean” every few seconds can get irritating, however the final Nas verse makes up for it:
It’s a Genocide
It’s a Genocide
5th Floor cooking raw
Had my own supply
cause of capitalist ways
That was back in the days
So now I do rap and it pays
Yes it does Nas, yes it does, as does the illustration of how capitalism is a direct cause of the drug epidemic in this country. Long have I articulated publically and privately that the hustler is no different than the businessman, that the principles of economics as dictated by Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” are pursued by both equally without regard to human beings. The drug dealer is demonized, but expected to stop his or her business due to its detrimental impact on the community, however seldom is the same connection made to pharmaceutical or food companies.
Strong verses, good beat, but the track loses replayability with me due to excessive use of “nah mean”.
Don’t judge me.
Considering that I often research theology, early Christian history, and exist within a constant state of existential pondering, my love for this track is pretty natural. Nas starts the track by telling Damian that they should “go all the way in on this one”. Sometimes emcees and musicians just blow smoke when making such statements. They don’t here. This track is like coiled smoke in your lungs, slowly being exhaled.
Marley begins by discussing the contradictory paradigm of white supremacy vis-a-vis Eurocentrism. How is it that African people are inferior, when the culture of Kemet is still being deciphered in regards to architecture?
Some of the smartest dummies/can’t read the language of Egyptian Mummies/an’ a fly go a Moon
and can’t find food for the starving tummies/pay no mind to the Youths/cause it’s not like the future depends on it/but save the Animals in the Zoo/cause the Chimpanzee dem a make big money/this is how the media pillages/on the TV the picture is/savages in villages/and the scientist still can’t explain the pyramids (huh)–Damian Marley
Jones’s verse encompasses questioning the authenticity and history of religion and evolution (who wrote the Bible, who wrote the Koran? And was it a lightning storm that gave birth to the Earth and then dinosaurs were born?), the effect of human waste and greed (What’s Hue? What’s Man? What’s Human? Anything along the land we consumin’, eatin’, deletin’… ruin. Trying to get paper. Gotta have land, gotta have acres), to mortality (I held real dead bodies in my arms/felt their body turn cold (Oh)/Why we born in the first place… /If this is how we gotta go? Damn.)
Nas speaks between each of the verses and the sample, dropping gems of wisdom, encouraging the listener to question the state of the world, and to seek truth rather than fear it.
12. My Generation feat. Lil’ Wayne & Joss Stone
I’m going to take a break from analyzing Jr. & Nas’ verses with this track. The song is dope. They killed it. Listen to it.
Let’s get to Wayne.
I can’t front. The appearance of Lil’ Wayne on the Distant Relatives album was a BIG surprise. However, Wayne did NOT disappoint here. Rather than spit a verse that is disembodied, scattered, and trivial, he proves that he belongs on this track. I will continue to reiterate that Wayne is MUCH smarter than he acts, and the bridge that Jones & Marley built for him to stand on during this track allowed him to truly shine.
If you weather that storm
then that Rain bring Sun
Been a long time coming
I know change go’ come
Man I gotta keep it moving
To the beat of my drum
Last night I set the future
At the feet of my son
But they thinking that my Generation
Gotta die young
If we all come together
Then they can’t divide one
Don’t worry ‘bout it
Just be about it
Got a message from God
Heaven too crowded
But I say
Hey Young World!
You never looked better
And I heard change start
With the man in the mirror
I’m a represent
A generation led by a Black President
Now how’s that for change?
Who knew that could change?
I don’t even look at the flag the same
So when you finish reading Revelations
Thank God for my Generation
The strength of that verse, and its insightful moments (“I don’t even look at the flag the same”) are a breath of fresh air. Weezy fans should be proud, and us hip-hop purist hipsters need to salute the popular emissary of the new generation for a job well done. In terms of flow & energy, he is the standout here. He doesn’t steal the show, but he stands out in the fabric of this song.
12. Africa Must Wake Up feat. K’naan
Africa must wake up/the sleeping sons of Jacob/for what tomorrow may bring…may a better day come
Yesterday we were Kings/can you tell the young ones/Who are we today? –Damian Marley
At the close of the album, the Distant Relatives, Nas & Damian Marley, bring the entire concept of the album full circle. This is a truly moving, beautiful, heartfelt track. For an album criticized by one blogger as being “Africa Now”, I must retort that this album is necessary. It is black pride without peachiness, it is historical references without corniness, it is collaboration without force, it is a musical marriage, a crest of brilliance on an ocean of legendary purpose.
Nas’ contributions to the song assail Eurocentric historians and critics of Africana studies, and presents historical facts to a sleeping Diaspora:
The Black Oasis
Ancient, Africa the sacred
The sleeping giant
Science, Art is your creation
Africa’s the origin of all the world’s religions
We praise bridges that carried us over
The battlefronts of Sudanic soldiers
The task put before us… – Nasir Jones
He goes on to answer Damian’s query posed at the end of the chorus:
We are the morning after
the make shift youth
the slave ship captured
is the final chapter
Nas proves his reading of Ivan Van Sertima’s They Came Before Columbus, which was alluded to on the Nigger album on the song “We Are Not Alone”. Nas explains African achievements, and dates our place in American history well before slavery:
The ancestral lineage
America’s first immigrant
the King’s son and daughters
from Nile waters
the first architect
the first philosophers
the first prophets and the doctors
Marley’s bridge is one of hope, love, peace, acceptance, and spirituality.
Now can we all pray
Each in his own way
Teaching and learning
And we can work it out
K’naan makes an appearance with a surprise verse in Somali, translated below:
[Somali] Dadyahow daali waayey, nabada diideen,
oo ninkii doortay diinta, waadinka dillee,
oo dal markii ladhiso, waadinka dunshee,
oo daacad ninkii damcay, waadinka dooxee.
[Translation] Oh ye people, restless in the refusal of peace,
and when a man chooses religion, aren’t you the ones to kill him?
And when a country is built, aren’t you the ones to tear it down?
And when one attempts to tell the truth, aren’t you the ones to cut him down?
It is not every day that a piece of art is released with the aim to create something that can stand the test of time. Nasir Jones & Damian Marley have recorded an album that is intense in its beauty, rich in its content, and vibrant in production. The album as a whole makes me proud to love my culture, in all of its forms. It is as Hip-Hop as it is Reggae, as African as it is Diaspora, and it is engineered with love, knowledge, understanding, peace, and power. There is truly a resounding brilliance in Distant Relatives, a truth so necessary that it was worth every minute of writing this detailed review and analysis. This lengthy review can easily evolve into a book, discussing the relevance of the project to the Diaspora, and analyzing the lyrics and music. The music itself is filled with samples, and is a living legacy of African music.
Distant Relatives is a fusion album without genre. It is truly “soul music”, and is a gift. I thank Nasir & Damian for collaborating on such a selfless, egoless, purposeful project. The music feels effortless, but is very obviously the product of a labor of love, conversation, elevation, and education.