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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Rapper Nas has teamed up with Jamaican reggae artist Damian Marley to release a new studio album and kick off a worldwide tour on Friday that bows to their African ancestry and the roots of reggae and hip hop music.
"Distant Relatives," is the New York emcee's first collaboration with any artist for an entire album. It combines some of his trademark tight lyrics and fluid rapping with Marley's Jamaican grooves and simpler phrases, with guest appearances from other top rappers including Lil' Wayne.
"It was something that I needed to do to help me push forward lyrically," the 36-year-old rapper, whose full name is Nasir Jones, said in a joint interview with Marley in New York this week. "And to be doing a whole album with me and D (Damian), we had a lot to say. Every song was shared."
A tour begins Friday in California before taking in the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee and then traveling to European cities including Paris, Cologne, Rotterdam, Manchester and Dublin.
The album is an unusual collaboration that was written by both artists and recorded over nine months. Hip hop and reggae has mostly been limited to singles before, but devoting an entire album from scratch heralded something new in the mixing of the genres, both artists said.
"A lot of the (past) collaborations were more in the nature of a remix as opposed to two artists really coming together," said Grammy Award winner Marley, 31, who is the youngest son of reggae master Bob Marley and produced all the songs.
"We did the whole album together and that definitely comes across in the music."
Featuring guest appearances from Lil' Wayne, up-and-coming Somali rapper K'naan and British soul and R&B singer Joss Stone, it mixes rock guitar, world music percussion, hip hop beats and traditional African instruments. It was co-produced by Marley's older brother Stephen.
"We wanted to come up with something fresh and creative and reflect Nas' music, reflect my music, but still not be clones of either," said Marley. "The album is multilayered with the African theme throughout, not just what we are saying but even musically.
The lyrics tackle subjects from African poverty to the diamond trade.
"Africa has been heavy on my mind for years," said Nas. "We are mad about things there, we are happy about things there, we are curious to know about roots there ... We can trace all (of) humanity back to one place, and that is one step back to one, togetherness."
Critics have reacted positively, saying the album deserves praise for it originality and for decrying Africa's ills.
USA Today called the album a "a potent and often provocative collaboration" while British newspaper The Guardian gave it four out of five stars, calling it "thoughtful, sincere, weighty stuff ... without sounding preachy or schmaltzy."
Both artists said along the way they were inspired by each other. Nas said Marley helped him with the music business, "just to deal with a lot of the phoniness and you start to naturally build a shield on yourself."
"I just saw how D rocks and the way he does his thing is a confidence. It is a knowing that is just powerful. I took that and it helped myself."
And for Marley, the rapper boosted his own self-worth.
"He is one of the most revered lyricists in pop music," he said. "Even for him to accept doing this project says also a lot to me about where I have reached."
Editing by Jill Serjeant