Nas and Damian Marley share the stage
JOHN BRODEUR Special to the AmNews | 8/17/2011, 3 p.m.
"Distant Relatives," the 2010 record from Queens rap legend Nas and Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley (of the Bob Marley Marleys), is a rarity among collaborative efforts in that it truly sounds like a collaboration. Its vision is unified-the two men use their unique histories to talk about the shared history and politics of African-Americans and the African continent, often trading lines or verses to share the weight.
The backdrop is a blend of live reggae and hip-hop injected with African sounds and rhythms, thanks to samples of recordings by Angola's David Ze and Mali's Amadou and Mariam. At the fore are two distinct, powerful voices that complement each other in timbre and style, each given equal time and space to earn their billing. As social commentary, it's got gravitas; as music, it's got no shortage of party-starting anthems.
In concert, the pairing worked on a whole other level. Taking the stage at Central Park's SummerStage with "As We Enter," Nas and Marley served as each other's hype men between the track's tag-team rhymes ("My man'll speak patois/And I can speak rap star"), declaring out of the gate that this show, like the LP, would have two stars.
This was the last show of the duo's yearlong tour in support of "Relatives," and the energy level was high as Nas grabbed the reins early on for a string of monster hits that included "Hip Hop Is Dead" and "If I Ruled the World." His former verbal sparring partner-and later, label boss-Jay-Z looked on from the wings. (It's not hard to imagine Jay and Kanye referring to "Distant Relatives" as they made "Watch the Throne.")
But to assume this was primarily a rap concert would be to ignore the strong-smelling odor in the air. Marley and his tight, seven-piece band controlled the tempo and mood for much of the set, even as the frontmen shared the spotlight on album highlights like "Dispear" and "Count Your Blessings." The youngest Marley is a dynamic performer, skilled as a rapper and a singer, with a voice that sounds, at times, awfully familiar, if you catch the drift.
And for as many knockout singles as Nas has brought to the table ("Made You Look" and "One Mic" among them), it was impossible to ignore a certain elephant in the room. Sure enough, the biggest audience response came when Marley channeled his late father for satisfying, if somewhat stiff, versions of "Get Up, Stand Up" and "Could You Be Loved," the elder Marley's spirit underscoring the evening's overall message of peace and harmony.
Trinidadian-born, Brooklyn-based singer-rapper Theophilus London was charged with warming up a capacity crowd that really required no such effort. The highly buzzed-about artist and his band turned out a series of solid tracks from his major label debut, "Timez Are Weird These Days."
London's "swagged out" sound veered from synth-fueled, minimalist pop to grime-flavored bangers, referencing everything from Gorillaz to Dizzee Rascal to Kanye West; "Wine and Chocolate" sounded like Kid Cudi rapping over a TV On the Radio outtake. On paper, it was the perfect setup for the sonic amalgam that would follow, but after about four songs, London's set seemed to fall flat as the capacity crowd awaited the headliners. Still, London is an artist worth watching.