"In Ethiopia, they have churches and mosques with loud speakers on top, so you have spiritual sounds filtering through the town throughout the day," Damian Marley once told me in an interview. "It's a very different culture than from where I'm from."
Marley was deeply affected by his African voyage. His already sedated voice turned reverential as he recalled walking those dusky streets, hearing muezzins wail over tinny loudspeakers, finding music in every alley and pair of eyes he met. This was, after all, biblical land, and as a devout Rasta, he felt an ancestral connection. Perhaps that's why the singer chose to kick off his album with Nas, Distant Relatives, with a not-so-subtle sample of Ethiopian legend Mulatu Astatqé's "Yègellé tezeta," a song featured in the irreplaceable Ethiopiques series, though made famous with its inclusion in "Broken Flowers." Every time Don Johnston popped one of the two CDs that his neighbor Winston gave him, off went Mulatu.
This isn't the first example of remashing the man. The Newphews of Phela created a 12.5-minute "remix" of the track that includes an intense dancefloor build. Certainly Nas and Marley's three-minute banger will receive more airplay, however. This collaboration, hinted at with Nas's spot on Marley's 2005 album, Welcome to Jamrock, has been long anticipated. While their previous track together, "Road to Zion," only climbed to #57 on the US R&B/Hip-Hop charts, their work simply wasn't done.
Over the last month, I received mp3s here and there from various sources, including the catchy yet not especially sophisticated retake on the Ethiopian riddim. The real treat is the lyrical assault. Overall I'm enthralled by newness, artists refusing to repeat prior successes in hopes of carving new territories. I was hopeful that these two men, whose entire careers have been built around innovation, would not disappoint.
As the mp3s rolled into my inbox, I was flabbergasted. The kitschy hook sung by Joss Stone on "My Generation," a blatant sing-along pop song, the overtly lame chorus on "Friends," and finally, a certified smash that "featured" Dennis Brown, even though the man had been dead for over a decade, all made me feel like I was served something I would never have expected: a marketing campaign under disguise of an album.
Yet I could not and did not lose faith. Marley has never released albums that had anything to do with each other. He can't even make one album that has a clear theme, which is part of his charm. Rather than rehashing easy reggae beats to spew indecipherable patois over, he's constantly reinventing himself. Mr. Marley was largely forgettable, though it had moments, but Halfway Tree blew my head apart. He would not see the limelight until his single "Welcome to Jamrock" became the juggernaut of '05, and the rest of that groundbreaking album was a lesson in constant seeking. Not every song worked ("Khaki Suit" could have been excluded), but the man was pushing, and in the attempt we witnessed greatness.
Ditto Nas. No rapper outside of Mos Def has been this versatile and courageous. The man could rip over a James Brown sample like no other, turn around and produce a slamming pop smash in "Street Dreams," then wax poetic on hieroglyphics written on ghetto walls. His social importance is equally important, as Dax-Devlon Ross writes in his book, The Nightmare and the Dream: Nas, Jay-Z, and the History of Conflict in African-American Culture:
"Stillmatic would reawaken the Hip-Hop generation to many of the themes and values that had made it the voice of disenfranchised youth the world over...[it] rekindled the tradition and spirit of black protest and power that had been missing from mainstream (or relevant) hip hop for several years."
When I finally received Distant Relatives, I was happy to find my prior assumptions had been, for the most part, awry. This is why an album remains more important than a single, something easy to lose sight of in download culture. And these two men have certainly made an album. They did in fact create very thematic songs: friendship, future leadership, raising up the young, remembering Africa, being true to yourself. These messages have always been embedded in their songs, yet here they are amplified, elegant, and filled with meaning few others achieve.
Perhaps with irony, the repeated listening of "Friends" has made it my favorite track. Kicking off with a sample of an African chant--without liner notes, I do not recognize the sample, though it sounds like something King Sunny Ade would have produced--it flows into a midtempo, conga-accentuated riddim with a beautiful Damian-led melody. This meditation of friendship is a universal sentiment, one we all appreciate.
While Nas's swagger is in fine form, his lyrical punchiness as taut as ever, perhaps most surprising is Damian's singing voice on "Count Your Blessings." For a moment I thought it was his brother Stephen, but he's already featured on the groove-oriented "Leaders" and the acoustic gospelesque gem, "In His Own Words." Damian's vocal diversity has never shone as brightly as now. He can get pretty, or he can slam, like on the hard riddim of "Nah Mean," where suddenly his patois is thick and you infer meaning more than hear it. Speaking of storytellers, Somalia native K'Naan pushes hard on "Tribal War," a genre of song--political and social equality--that he's well qualified to discuss, with one of the album's most illustrious beats.
The word I keep returning to is: meaningful. Nas and Damian Marley have long been about it. Their marriage of sounds paints inspired visions in the listener's mind, the point of all good art--to evolve the music forwards. A world of influence can be heard on every second of this hour-long voyage, and the world they create through their beats and lyrics shall stay with us for some time to come.