Hip-Hop Legend Calls on Reggae Roots

Nas & Damian Marley

Distant Relatives

Def Jam

It appears Nas hasn’t written off hip-hop completely. Four years after he first lamented the death of the genre, he’s going back to hip-hop’s roots to try and revive it from the ground up, collaborating with Damian Marley for an invigorating blend of rap and reggae on 13-track narrative Distant Relatives.

Mostly produced by Marley himself, Relatives meanders through a varied blend of laid-back rhythms and upbeat jams, live instrumentation and looped-out samples, hand percussion and standard drum kits — keeping the project fresh from start to finish.

Together for their first full-length, the artists engage in a balanced game of give-and-take that never feels forced, their mutual maturity more evident than on any solo work either has produced since the last time they collaborated: on 2005 single “Road to Zion.”

The marriage between Nas’ strong, raspy raps and Jr. Gong’s rapid sing-song shines brightest on fast-paced opener “As We Enter.” As they pass the mic atop an old-school drum track and simple synth arpeggio, their divergent vocalizations merge in poetic perfection. Nas’ flow is as thick as ever, and he opts against recording doubles on his verses — instead turning up the reverb to match Marley’s echoey dub vocals.

Marley plays with tricky melodies on “Patience,” at the same time providing his complex lyrical critique of Africa’s social turmoil. It’s given even more depth alongside a minimal, half-time beat held together by a stuttering hi-hat and quick acoustic downstrokes.

Socially conscious “My Generation” — featuring a cough-syrup cameo from jailbird Lil Wayne — samples a children’s choir on the hook, beginning to teeter on the brink of cheesy. But a heavy, trembling bassline thickened by Marley’s forceful delivery and Nas’ solid schemes bring it back to reality: “Can you blame my generation’s subjective gentrification/ Depicting their frustrations over ill instrumentation?”

Relatives rides a largely unexplored sound, tied down by unwavering lyrical focus on the connections between the artists’ musical and personal backgrounds. As Nas puts it, the duo takes it back to “a world buried in time, uncovers it with rhymes” — giving us a modern-day classic while they’re at it.

Nas and Damian Marley will perform live at UCLA’s JazzReggae Festival on May 31.

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