Sunday, January 18
Smart move from Nas – celebrate the hell out of the 20th Anniversary of one of hip-hop’s great triumphs; his debut album, Illmatic. It’s his best work, it still feels fresh, it still hangs together thematically without seeming dated, the production too – it all works. And he, gifted, one of the great live MCs (this is my third time seeing him, my third time hearing some of these songs).
But quite apart from the fact that the songs are great, and that he’s still got it – the timing is exquisite. There was the documentary, the usual anniversary reissue of the album and now the tour to celebrate all of that. And this sets him up for a really big next album – he even told the crowd, mid-set, that he was working on new material, taking a break from writing to get back out and hit from the stage.
He launched straight into Illmatic – so it was to those trim, taut, perfect rap songs – N.Y State of Mind, Life’s A Bitch, The World Is Yours, they’re rap songs, no mistaking them – but they play through and play out like pop songs, perfect length, singalong hooks and choruses, infectious vibe – and selling them from the stage was Nas. He’s near-flawless in his delivery, and it never feels like something that’s simply by-rote, learned, regurgitated – he feels this. He sells it. There’s passion and integrity, there was great pride from him in serving up this work that’s been out in the world for 20 years now, the work that gave Nasir Jones his name, made his name as Nas.
It’s a short set, natch, because it’s a short album – one of Illmatic’s most attractive features is that in the age of over-long hip-hop albums, not-funny skits and people still sure that value-for-money was going at least 60 minutes on a CD or even 74, this debut album announced a precocious talent and he was able to say all he needed to in 40 minutes.
But at the end of Illmatic – and it really hasn’t aged a day, it was stunning, amazing, relentless in a happy-smiley, watch-the-crowd-shout-back-every-second-line-of-lyrics kinda way – we were treated to a handful of tracks from some of the other albums. Some key moments in the post-Illmatic career of Nas, such as his Lauryn Hill duet, If I Ruled The World, from Illmatic’s follow-up, It Was Written, the title track from Nastradamus, Hate Me Now from 1999’s I Am… and I Can from 2002’s God’s Son.
And if it seems churlish to say that a rapper with 20 years in the game served up his best work first there are still plenty of highlights across the albums that followed. It’s just that Illmatic is his most complete album – it sure was a treat to hear the whole thing live; to watch it being nailed.
Just Nas on the stage with the very impressive DJ Green Lantern cutting between tracks, slowing tempos, nailing all of that and doing the hype, the BVs, helping sing the hooks. There was a feeling of celebration about the night. But these two guys offered not merely nostalgia, it was a masterclass, a showcase of how to do it; how to get the job done.