Though most people who had a working pair of ears last year could hum you the chorus to Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind,” far fewer seem to know that the song was originally slated to feature a verse from Jay’s former arch-rival Nas. The two reconciled onstage in 2005 after a heated Olympiad of diss tracks and interview insults, but the beef served two major purposes while it lasted: not only did it give post-Pac/Biggie hip-hop heads something fresh to talk about, but it also reminded them that Nas was someone worth talking about in the first place.
When Jay-Z called him out on having only released one worthwhile record in his ten years as a rapper on 2001’s “Takeover,” it seemed like the critics weren’t the only ones who really heard him. Nas quickly responded with a long-forgotten fire on the acerbic “Ether,” and, less 2008’s Untitled misstep, has displayed a restored focus in his second decade. True, there’s no better way to damn your career to eternal disappointment than to debut with an era-defining classic like Nas did in ‘94 with Illmatic, but it’s no small feat that the re-energized emcee managed a couple releases at least worthy of its lineage (2002’s Lost Tapes and God’s Son).
It’s both curious and unfortunate, then, that Nas wriggled out of the opportunity to take things full circle not once, but twice (a highly anticipated remix featuring both Nas and 50 Cent was supposed to come out at the close of last year, but seems to have fallen off the radar). And on both counts, Nas’ excuse to Jay has reportedly been his focus on completing this collaboration record with Damian Marley.
So expectations for Distant Relatives are at once great and modest. On one hand, it’s Nas’ follow-up to his only flat-out clunker of the decade, his first substantial statement since his messy divorce with Kelis concluded last year, and — well, the thing that he preferred to do over writing a verse for what could have easily been a hip-hop milestone. On the other hand, Nas’ past warns against expecting much from his collaboration albums (the Dre-produced and admitted “flop” that was the Firm supergroup, for one), and the rap-cum-reggae genre fusion is typically a spotty one, to boot.
In some cases here, however, it really does click. The two meet halfway with the punchy pulse of “As We Enter,” finishing each other’s lines with a fluency that suggests they might be more closely related than their backgrounds first suggest. And when the beats take on a more distinctly reggae flavor (which they do more often than not), Nas’ sharp Queensbridge flow adds some tasty friction to the riddims’ swirling looseness. In fact, the New York emcee’s only mistakes here are the same kind he makes anywhere else: while Marley does his best to float “Patience” on his own, Nas’ verse is so plainly in need of a rewrite that one wonders if the lullaby sway of the Amadou/Miriam/Albarn sample didn’t have him snoozing in the studio.
Much has already been made of the record’s lyrical blunders; Nas’ attempts at philosophical insight feel predictably hollow, while Marley’s hereditary optimism can start to cloy after a while (om “Count Your Blessings,” he actually rhymes “love and assurance” with “new health insurance”…repeatedly). But as the intimidating studio credits list attests, scores of other musicians played a part in making this record, and their contributions are just as decisive. The saturated horns and drippy echoes on “Land of Promise” are deliciously dub, and the inspired interplay with the Dennis Brown sample on the chorus helps make the track a very successful group effort. But in other cases, it sounds like there might have simply been too many cooks in the kitchen. “Blessings” and “In His Own Words” have unbearably sterile production values that sound strangely Sugar Ray, or some dreadful equivalent. And while K’naan and Stephen Marley both turn in a couple solid guest turns apiece, the Lil Wayne and Joss Stone appearances are every bit as awkward and ruinous as one might imagine.
It all adds up to something that is far less than a great record, but those who approach Distant Relatives can expect at least a handful of keepers for the summer months. Marley’s surprising consistency might pique some more interest in his solo discography, and for Nas it’s certainly more than a mere distraction or alibi.
Still gotta wonder what that “Empire State” verse would’ve been like, though.