Nas has come a long way since Illmatic. Nine solo albums, millions of records sold, and countless Grammy nominations later, he’s an esteemed hip-hop veteran. Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley is cut from the same cloth of greatness. After being the only Jamaican artist to garner two Grammys on the same night for Welcome to Jamrock, he’s well on his way to following in the legendary footsteps of his late father Bob Marley.
As a collective, Nas and Damian Marley grab from reggae, hip-hop, and dancehall on their joint effort Distant Relatives (May 18), an album paying homage to their motherland of Africa. The fusion of a man from Kingston, Jamaica, and another from Queens, New York, coupled with tribal drums and instruments, creates a mighty sound. With production by Damian and his brother Stephen, combined with appearances by Lil Wayne and K’Naan, the duo isn’t just making hits, they’re creating history.
Rap-Up.com walks you through Nas and Damian’s journey track by track as they bridge the continental divide.
1. “As We Enter”
Damian and Nas enter with a bang over a quick hip-hop tempo. Drums, keys, and percussion carry the banner. The two kings rule with an iron fist over the jumping beat, threatening death to all crimes after dropping a little bit of Swahili on the gentry: “Habari gani?/ Mzuri sana (How are you?/ Very well).”
2. “Deadly Equation (Tribal War)” featuring K’Naan
The duo explains that scattering natives from the motherland has broken people up into warring sectors. The song has a jungle-like, Lion King feel to it, which features a tribe of hollow drums. While Nas describes the separation anxiety from the “real” home, K’Naan breaks down how brothers end up fighting against brothers, and Damian ties it in by describing the battles over land and gang colors, not with old-fashioned “knuckle” or “kung fu” fighting, but by drive-bys, missles, and shuttles.
3. “Strong Will Continue”
Damian shines in the beginning of this song about survival of the fittest and creating your own destiny, but Nas has a trick up his sleeve. Electric guitar, bass, and cello support Damian’s strong warning: “Now you’re starring in your own movie/ Playing by the role you choose.” After a long interlude, Nas jumps in with a surprise verse, explaining his candid thoughts about his ex-wife Kelis. This track will give fans of the Queensbridge MC some answers they’ve been waiting to hear.
4. “Leaders” featuring Stephen Marley
This song is one of the more laggard on the album, synthesized to be a non-danceable slow jam. Nas vaguely describes the characteristics of who he believes is a leader: “Jake hate him/ Snakes could not violate him/ Pimps memorize his lines verbatim/ He reps NY, yo/ Gives C-notes to winos.” Jr. Gong says he wants to be like his leader who he treats “as a father,” and wants to grow up to be just like him.
“Good friend better than pocket money” is an old Jamaican proverb, and it does well to describe this tune’s sense of camaraderie. Over a slow, tribal beat, Nas iterates how male friends have a sense of understanding, with “No question/ No jealousies…no female tendencies,” while Damian values loyalty: “Your real friends are there for all the wins and losses!”
6. “Count Your Blessings”
All that’s needed is a full band and a soul, electric-funk guitar to build upon a newfound Marvin Gaye spirit, but Bob Marley’s values are channeled through Damian’s tears of joy: “I got love and assurance/ I’ve got new health insurance/ I’ve got strength and endurance/ So I count my blessings!” Nas shouts out his blessings—the birth of his first son on 7/21/09—and calms all troubled spirits that aspire to be him, but don’t have the means: “There can only be one Nas, yo!” is his shrugging retort.
Sounding like a warrior version of “Stand by Me,” this tune plays on the words “despair” and “this spear” in war. While Damian breaks down its use on the battlefield (“This spear nah make friends”), Nas gets back to survival tactics: “Must survive anyhow you have to/ Despair, desperation/ But I have no fear/ When I hold this spear.” The sound effect of a spear hitting its target can be heard throughout the song.
8. “Land of Promise” featuring Dennis Brown
A mid-tempo groove combined with a heavy reggae bass guitar are the underlying components to Damian and Nas’ take on what the promised land would be if it were in Africa. The two imply that Africa would surely be a first-world country had they not been robbed of their people and goods. “Imagine Ghana like California with Sunset Boulevard… Somalia like New York,” Jr. Gong ponders on the track.
9. “In His Own Words” featuring Stephen Marley
10. “Nah Mean”
More contemporary reggae holds together a lighter track, which features heavy patois wordplay. Damian boasts that he is more gangster than the Gambino family and that his pockets are “green like Spirulene,” while Nas wishes all the violence would stop: “Don’t want to see another soldier drop.”
This song is of a slow tempo, and takes a sample from Mali duo Amadou & Mariam called “Sabali.” Damian pillages over the injustices of the world, like having the ability to fly to the moon and still not being able to “feed starving tummies.” Nas breaks free from the injustice, saying people can try to hold him back, but he has “a real big spirit.”
12. “My Generation” featuring Lil Wayne
This is arguably the “We Are the World” of the album. The young choirs of L.A.’s Sunny Brae Elementary School and Oakwood School provide the background vocals as Damian, Nas, and Lil Wayne lift up the youth with their verses. Damian praises his generation for staying the course, rhyming, “Because we rising up despite of the economy/ And then we a star the show like the astronomy/ And how we keep on breaking through is an anomaly.” Nas proves that we can break generational curses, while Lil Wayne rhymes that “change starts with the man in the mirror.” Multiple versions of the song will be released, including one with Joss Stone.
13. “Africa Must Wake Up” featuring K’Naan
Strings over a reggae beat parlay an ode to Africa as Damian portrays, “Yesterday we were kings/ Can you tell the young ones who we are today?” The cry for help is strengthened by Nas, who pleads for disease and AIDS to fade, and K’Naan sings in Somali: “Oo daacad niinki damcay/ Waadinka dooxee (When one attempts to tell the truth, aren’t you the ones to cut him down? The ancestors will surely be stirred).”
14. “Ancient People” featuring Junior Reid (Bonus Track)
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