"full of uninteresting revelations and self-serious proclamations"
I just read this. An intelligent critic who acknowledges some very real problems with this album but I'm reading into something that I feel has been plaguing popular rap criticism for a while and I'd like to speak to it.
I don't think the concept of intentionality factors into Hip Hop (I don't have an interest or vocabulary to speak to the state of criticism outside my chosen genre) critique nearly enough. Fennessey hits the on the obvious, ironically chiding Nas and Damian for being obvious, but is missing the forest. It's not unlike the critical beating Nas took over Untitled. He and Marley are being chided for, what? Being on message tackling a subject so infinitely complex that reductionism and generalization are practical necessities? And a better question, are they trying to make a dense head scratcher or a sunny head knocker? If so, did they not effectively accomplish their goal?
The single "As We Enter" is being received as the obligatory respite in the critical pans I've come across, the atmosphere of harmless fun is regularly singled out as the reason why. This seems to be what critics are asking for from their Hip Hop in 2010: Chaotic irreverence. Weird regional dance trends spiked with off kilter production and strong hooks. I'm not saying this is the bain of Hip Hop by any means but what I am saying is there can be room for both. Nas and Marley didn't want to make an album of party jams, it would seem based on "As We Enter"s effortlessness that would've been easy to do. They had a different idea of what they wanted from this album and that should factor into its reception. It's almost as if rappers have been denied a lofty artistic vision, an idea slightly more grandiose then riding a beat and hitting punches.
Distant Relatives wasn't made for Comp Lit majors who are no strangers to Pan Africanism and Marcus Garvey. It's a summer jam, meant to enjoy with an L on your stoop or porch as you get motivated to the warm vibes, positivity and anti-ironicism of a different era, be it KRS' or The Gong himself, no stranger to "obvious" timeless messages. I've read a lot of exposition regarding the early 90s era of Reggae tinged Rap, but this album has little to do with those Gangsta/Dancehall collabos, this is Conscious Rap blended with Classical Reggae, more "So Much Things to Say" than "Dolly My Baby".
So the question remains, how do you review an album like Distant Relatives if robbed of your "objective" critical arsenal? I'll try to tackle the song I've been stuck on for the last few days, the grand finale "Africa Must Wake Up":
As a producer Marley likes his schmaltz rendered with onion and spiked with truffle oil and that's present here as it is throughout the album, as it is throughout his Jamrock. Still it works, the simple pounding keys and weeping strings underlying the song's epic theme and the question that punctuates his sweetly-sad sung hook. Nas is articulate if not completely original in his assertions but the interplay between these two are what matters as they split duties down the middle on this song and suggest a genre all it's own. Their collaboration finds it's great cinematic wheelhouse here in the album's final, doggedly hopeful minutes. K'Naan is more of a logical addition than aesthetic, he's grating but serves to underscore the song and album's universal message.
"Africa Must Wake Up" is an anthem. Like the anthems that came before it and the many that will follow it tugs at ancient heart strings, it mashes predictable, time tested buttons and makes no apologies for doing so. When the duo play the Williamsburg Waterfront July 31st, somehow I imagine their audience will manage to get over their jaded frustration with being treated with such condescension.