"Who says we can't go to Africa?" Those immortal words are uttered by Nas' character, Sincere, in the gripping (if narratively challenged) 1998 film Belly. They're words of hope, a desire to return to something original, a home you've never seen. Belly is a modern camp classic unmatched in its visual grandeur and ambition but also inscrutable in its storytelling, marked by extravagantly lit set pieces, frantic jump-cuts, and sudden shifts in setting from Queens strip clubs to Jamaican dancehalls. And now it has a bookend: Distant Relatives, a full-length collaboration between Nas and Bob Marley's son, Damian. It's a reggae album. And a rap album. But, ultimately, it's an Africa album.
The rap-reggae union is hardly a novel idea — Jamaican roots are bedrock in hip-hop's foundation. DJ Kool Herc's dancefloor exhortations at Sedgwick Avenue parties were famously inspired by Jamaican DJs like Dennis Alcapone and U-Roy. KRS-One connected the dots with his incorporation of the Zunguzung melody on 1987's "Remix for the P Is Free." The Notorious B.I.G. often employed the same tricks, initially on Super Cat's 1993 single "Dolly My Baby (Remix)," nodding at his parents' Jamaican roots as he howled, "Yes, it's Bad Boy, hard to the core/Aaaaah! Me can't take it no more." These are the noble examples — for the ignominious, consider Guerilla Black batting Sister Nancy's "Bam Bam" around like a defenseless kitten on the Biggie poseur's "Compton," or acknowledge that Jay-Z's recent dalliances in patois have been, well, less than Jah-like.
Distant Relatives enters the conversation with more formal bona fides, in the figure of a Marley. And not just any spawn of Bob, but his youngest boy, Damian, the most fully formed artist in the clan and the only one to score a charting single in the past 10 years. That'd be "Welcome to Jamrock," a steely evocation of the crime-struck garrisons of Marley's native Jamaica that cracked Billboard's Hot 100 in 2005. It's also an absolute dynamo: Throbbing and thunderous, the track's wailing sirens and hammerhead thump were inescapable that summer. It's one of the few traditional reggae songs to connect with a mass audience this past decade; it also connected with rappers. Everyone from the Game to Tony Yayo to the posthumous Biggie Smalls rapped over it, turning its "Out in the street / We call it muuuurder!" refrain into a siren song at mixtape coves around Manhattan.
"Jamrock" was the title track to Marley's third album; follow-up single "Road to Zion," an exceptional collaboration with Nas, revealed an intriguing chemistry. Here were two men — rich men, mind you — who still seemed vexed by the world's injustices, its tragedies of haves over have-nevers. "President Mugabe holding guns to innocent bodies / In Zimbabwe / They make John Pope seem godly / Sacrilegious and blasphemous," Nas raps; four bars later, he's lamenting his own materialism. And it's here that the curious, achingly gifted artist finds his match in contradiction. Damian Marley, too, is the wealthy son of an artist, presenting militancy in koans and fury with convincing intensity. He is poetical, if not a poet, and a powerful vocalist. Their making an album together — even a half-decade later — is a natural move. But Distant Relatives rarely rediscovers the burnished elegance of their first meeting.
Instead, what we have here is a tasteful affair full of uninteresting revelations and self-serious proclamations. On "Angola (Friends)," we learn real friends will be faithful, and fakes are like snakes. "My Generation" is a cacophony of overcooked musical gestures: a children's choir, a histrionic Joss Stone chorus, a subpar Lil Wayne verse, and predictable jeremiads of struggle. Motions to Africa abound. The overrated Somali MC K'Naan logs not one but two dull guest spots. Blind Malian stars Amadou & Mariam's gorgeous electro-acoustic 2009 hit "Sabali" gets its chorus nicked for the inert "Patience." Deceased reggae giant Dennis Brown's voice crops up as a celebration of — what else? — Africa on "The Promised Land." These are not dishonest gestures, but they feel rudimentary, the sort of thing NPR listeners might deem appropriately "African."
It all works far better when it seems to not be working hard at all. The invigorating, baton-passing "As We Enter" is one of the few songs here that doesn't directly call for a return to Africa, but it obliquely acknowledges the continent with an unmistakable sample from Ethiopian jazz giant Mulatu Astatke's "Yègellé Tezeta." As Nas and Marley trade bars, almost Run-D.M.C.-like in their ease, we get a sense of two friends having fun, maybe smoking a little weed, excelling at the things they've chosen for themselves. Likewise the jittery "Nah Mean," a lyrical exercise in brevity and also the only time Nas truly emerges. This is far more Marley's project; he produced 10 of the 13 songs (his brother, Stephen, handled the rest) and sings several choruses.
The arrangements are often maudlin — pianos, strings, a ghastly Jack Johnson approximation on "Count Your Blessings," with Nas floating in and out. He offers knowingly contradictory verses — a Nasir trademark — but disappears into the ether when not rapping. On Distant Relatives, the Queensbridge icon seems to have seen for real what Sincere discovers at Belly's end: "When I opened my eyes, I couldn't believe, Africa for real." Only it's not what it should be.