In 2005, Nas and Damian Marley joined forces on “Road to Zion,” a simultaneously urgent and mellow hypnotic single on Marley’s critically acclaimed, Grammy Award winning album Welcome to Jamrock. With their distinctive intonations floating seamlessly on top of the pounding beat, the collaboration screamed for the two to further explore their musical synergy. With the May 18th release of the highly anticipated Distant Relatives, they’ve emerged, as Marley hummed on “Road to Zion,”…from the darkness wit mi big blunt a glow.”It’s easy to imagine that the prevailing theme that pounds throughout the reggae-heavy Distant Relatives album is one of spiritual Diaspora unity. The unforgiving fusion of reggae, hip-hop, live instrumentation from Damian Marley’s band, production and vocals from Stephen Marley, and samples from Ethiopian jazz king Mulatu Astatke and Malian blues musicians Amadou and Mariam, offers the best musical confirmation to that narrative. You can hear it in the yearning outrage of the lyrics of K’Naan—I drink poison, then I vomit diamonds— a driving, bass happy cut, “Tribal Wars,” a track that conjures up images of the Wonder Band sharing a joint with Jimmy Cliff and Slick Rick in Kumasi, Ghana. Or on “Dispear,” with the sounds of a sword being pulled from a sheath and a roaring lion on the break beat, with a back-rolling bass, a soulful African choir, a somber trumpet call, and verses from Nas envisioning a romanticized back to the future—because before being removed from Africa, there was moving in unison—and if we could go back in time, disputes would end, and the Watt’s gangs Bounty Hunters and GrapeStreet get cool again. Jr. Gong sings along: A nuh dat we a defend, cause every man deserve a turn, like Babylon deserve to burn. But really it’s not all sermonizing here. Or maybe it is. But it’s the kind where copious note taking would do any fledgling MC well on the rhyme-fest of Jamaican patois to Queensbridge patois and back again on “As We Enter.” The back and forth delivery is done as fluently as the kings of Queens, Run DMC—as Jr. Gong rhymes: As we enter, come mek we take you pon the biggest adventure—Nas answers: Must be dementia, that you ever thought you could touch our credentials.Nas: That’s how you end up on the hit listJr: Gong: Inna Bad Man BusinessNas: No EvidenceJr. Gong: Crime scene fingerprint-less.They even flow back and forth in Swahili–Nas: Habari Gani?; Gong: Nzuri sana!What could have easily become a quietly disjointed album, a tossed salad of music genres touching but never blending, ends up folding sweetly into a bass-heavy dough of some danceable reggae fusion and hip hop, with conscious lyricism, rapid fire patois free-styling, and up tempo classic roots reggae, all of it as a testament to the soul of African born music. Topically, there’s no stone left unturned: there’s a plaintive cry for an end to intra-cultural war with Damian’s singing on the roots reggae reminiscent track, “Africa Must Wake Up,” with history lessons from Nas—But Africa’s the origin of all the world’s religions, we praise bridges that carried us over, the battlefronts of Sudanic soldiers. And there’s a little bit of the battle of the sexes and confessionals on “The Strong Will Survive”—Nas: How am I supposed to be comfy when I pay alimony and child support monthly?If it sounds esoteric, all high-minded above some roots reggae ganja filled clouds, well, it is. But there’s a subtle playfulness with Damian’s lyrics on cuts, like “Wisdom”: Scholars teach in Universities and claim their smart and cunning/Tell them find a cure when we sneeze and that’s when their nose start running. And there’s no disputing the snatches of car radio, club speaker friendly, party music. The cut, “My Generation,” offers up a radio friendly palate featuring Lil’ Wayne with a guest verse, offering hope to his generation, despite his having—Got a message from God, Heaven too crowded—the self-esteem booster tells his generation they never looked better, while urging them that change happens with the man in the mirror.If there’s any common theme here, it’s that risk taking and entertainment can still be romantically involved, even in a musical landscape flush with fading marriages of convenience. Distant Relatives is alternately ambitious, relevant, universal music and a laid-back chasing a cotton mouth with a Heineken kind of adventure. On the intro of “Promised Land,” the iconic voice of the late Dennis Brown sums up the album’s evocation best—Africa (laughs) just the mention of it, just to mention it man, is like you call mi name man.

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