No one sounds like Nas. A raspy authoritarian with an impossibly disciplined flow and a shrewd eye for detail, he took us to the very root of American prejudice with 2008's poignant, sobering Untitled. At the dawn of the Obama era, we needed smarts and objectivity in our hip-hop. Nasir Jones gave us both.
Teaming with politically minded reggae yelper Damian Marley (the brains behind the stunning, misanthropic 2005 single "Welcome to Jamrock"), Nas delivers the work of a lifetime with Distant Relatives. It's the best hip-hop record of the year so far—a bright, richly cultured work that shares more in common with Amadou & Mariam than Cam'ron. Is the album intermittently mawkish? Sure. The children's choir that harmonizes during "My Generation" is pure syrup. And Nas makes no effort to conceal his self-importance on "Count Your Blessings."
Even so, it's bracing—inspiring, even—to hear an album that introspects but never panders; many rap artists pepper their works with moments of serious reflection, but those moments are often an attempt to concede substance-craving listeners. Record a song about the woes of ghetto life, and then it's on to the next Cristal-endorsing club jam. Distant Relatives never succumbs to such disingenuousness. The album shines with passion and zeal, both in its content and production, which oozes earthy warmth. "Quarter brick, half a brick?" Please.
"As We Enter," the dancey, jiving lead single, starts the album with vigor, and that's sustained for 59 more minutes: the reggae-funk guitars of "Leaders" and "Friends" provide a heady backdrop for Marley's melancholic vocals; the rally-cry rhythms of "Strong Will Continue" are just as urgent; ditto for "Dispear," a terse dancehall banger for the ages. On the pensive "Land of Promise," Nas wishes aloud that the children of Port-au-Prince were better off; two tracks later, on "Nah Mean," he laments the faults of capitalism. Only "In His Own Words," a gooey acoustic ballad that sounds like a hackneyed attempt to recreate an Eckhart Tolle speech on wax, is the weakest offering here, despite Nas's astute wonderings: "What really did I escape from?/Thought I saw God's face on the design of my vintage Claiborne."
But it feels almost vain to describe individual tracks, because every last note on Distant Relatives blends to form a seamless, cohesive whole. Albums that explore all kinds of messy ideas about humanity and humility are rarities that deserve to be cherished. Rap-blog arbiters may scoff at the supposed preachiness on display, but Nas and Marley didn't do this for them. They did it because, with the aftermath of a natural disaster in Haiti and continued problems looming in places like Somalia and Darfur, they felt they needed to do something.