NEW YORK (Billboard) - When rapper Nas and reggae star Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley first collaborated -- on "Road to Zion" from Marley's 2005 album "Welcome to Jamrock" -- the pair knew it was inevitable they would come back for more.
Sure enough, they are preparing to release a full-length rap-reggae collision, "Distant Relatives," on May 18 though Universal Republic. The album is a seamless collaboration -- a world away from some of the forced dancehall/hip-hop couplings previously used by major labels to try and cross over reggae singles to the R&B mainstream.
"Many of those records were made solely from business decisions," says Marley, seated alongside Nas at New York's Quad Studios. "Some of those artists didn't know each other's work until they made the records, whereas I (was) a fan of Nas years before we did 'Road to Zion.'"
Combined, the two also bring some serious sales firepower. "Welcome to Jamrock" peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 and has moved 764,000 units, according to Nielsen SoundScan, while Nas' latest record, 2008's "Untitled," hit No. 1 and has sold 463,000 units.
The record is being introduced by three different tracks:
- "As We Enter," a vibrant blend of Marley's thick Jamaican patois and Nas' New York-accented rhymes, has so far peaked at No. 18 on Billboard's Rap Digital Songs chart and No. 23 on R&B/Hip-Hop Digital Songs, selling 33,000 units;
- the darker "Strong Will Continue" -- which the duo debuted February 5 on BET's "Help for Haiti" telethon -- hit download stores April 13, although it's not being pushed at radio;
- "Land of Promise" was released as an embeddable widget that offers a free download of the track and pushes news updates on "Distant Relatives."
Guests on the album include Lil Wayne on "My Generation," Somalia-born K'naan rapping about his homeland on "Africa Must Wake Up," Marley's older brother Stephen and even the late Dennis Brown, who's sampled on a revamped version of his reggae repatriation anthem "The Promised Land."
The duo is booked on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" May 19 and "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" May 24, while the U.S. Distant Relatives tour -- on which both artists will perform separately and together -- kicks off May 21 at the Community Center in Arcata, Calif. European shows begin June 27 at Belgium's Couleur Cafe Festival with pending dates for Africa and the Caribbean.