I won’t lie: Joss Stone and Nas didn’t seem like the likeliest of collaborations. Upon learning they’d worked together, I wasn’t overrun with the same (ultimately unjustified) horror as when I heard that Jonas Brothers and Common had produced a track; but there was certainly apprehension.
That’s due to my prejudice, I’ll readily admit. The title of the tune, "Governmentalists", and the seniority and severity of the New York rapper suggested to me that this was a Nas-led enterprise, and therefore a track which would make countless and fruitless references to The Man. Well – in Joss Stone’s case at least – it’s somewhat more subtle than that. Written as a response to a UK politician telling her that she should keep her nose out of war commentary, the track begins with the portentous strumming of bass, perhaps a conscious channelling of Marvin Gaye; in fact, it put me in mind of "Heard It On The Grapevine". The tune begins with the faintest of falsettos, as Stone waspishly wags her finger: "Don’t you dare interrupt the White House ball", she hisses.
She’s on best songwriting form when reaching for a more original strain of sarcasm: when she steps away from comfortable phrases, there are some couplets that really hit the mark. "Look up, look up/See a dead man walking/See his baby face/Hey, let’s duplicate a few", she suggests. To those sending yet more troops into wars that she sees as unwinnable, she reassures them that it’s OK if they "snatch ’em in their prime, go ahead/that’s fine, that’s fine…Their mamas will be alright/Just give’em time."
Not all of the phrase-making is this fluid, nor does it need to be, with vocals as good as Stone’s; the lowest note she strikes, unfortunately, is the last one that she sings before the entry of Nas. Speaking to the Christian president George W. Bush – and presumably now the Christian president Barack Obama, who has inherited his conflicts – she asks "will you ever be satisfied/If in God you trust/…I ain’t no preacher but/Thou shalt not kill". This just isn’t a good enough end; if you’re going to attack someone for their warlike ways on the basis of their faith, then you have to examine the Christian argument of the "just war". Otherwise the rhetoric is in danger of striking a somewhat hollow note. Or maybe I’ve overthought this. Whatever, the track deserves better.
The track certainly deserves better than the Nas verse. The gold standard for verses of this type, in my view, is Damien Marley’s "Confrontation". If you’re going to mount an all-out attack on The Powers That Be – and there’s very little margin for error - you have to take it as far as Marley took it. Nas talks about his enemies, and his issues with police, and then throws in a reference to JFK. None of this really has anything to do with Stone’s verse, or even the track as a whole. Nas may well have been asked to guest due to his work on Marley's Road To Zion, where hs content was far more impressive (his flow, as ever, is almost matchless). But GZA or Mos Def would have been wiser - if less commercial - choices to share the airwaves with Stone, and they might even have given her the urge to polish her words further.