At 6 p.m. Sunday, October 28, Nas takes the Le Ritual stage with his band, Z. The Queens MC opens with “No Introduction” off the new album, Life is Good.
Stunning bass engulfs the growing audience standing on rubbery track down front. “I remember early mornings – syrup sandwiches, sugar water, yeah,” he spits, before speculating on ways to “takeover JP and Morgan, Goldman and Sachs, and teach the world facts and give Saudi they oil back.” The band sits out the next song, “The Don,” a staccato wind-up produced by Da Internz, Salaam Remi, and the late Heavy D, then returns for “NY State of Mind,” the lead track off his 1994 debut, Illmatic.
At nearly 20 years old, Illmatic offers fresh anthems: he follows with “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” “Represent,” and “The World Is Yours,” each with a chorus that wins over the crowd. In front of me, the recently-arrived figure covered in a green body sock unsheathes his head and is nearly a boy, maybe early twenties. Funny yet fitting that a record seen at the time as the aligning of hip hop’s production stars (Pete Rock, DJ Premier, Q-Tip, Large Professor, etc.) crosses over quite nicely in late 2012. Also: DJ Green Lantern is at the controls this evening.
“If I Ruled the World” comes at a slower tempo, its meditative swing a good segue into “Daughters” from Life Is Good. When Nas introduces the song, his voice reminds me again of the first person to ever play Illmatic for me: my old roommate, Ithaca lawyer John Fitzgerald; this was back in ’96, on Plum Street around the corner from Snake & Jake’s. Both have raised young ladies and both say “It’s just crazy” with the same wonder.
Around me stand youngsters in their Halloween costumes, in their freebie Scope sunglasses, perhaps on their third day of Voodoo. A few years back, I went to a Moroccan rap show at a festival in Fez. The pose-free, first-love fervor for hip-hop that day was as striking to me then as the enjoyment rippling through tonight’s audience. Here are (almost painfully to ancient ass me) young Americans who never knew a world without hip-hop, who take it for granted and sup at the media bowls of Officer Ross and CMYMB, but remain willing to fondle and celebrate in close proximity to a legend, choosing him instead of the various other options available in City Park this weekend. They could be running in promotional hamster wheels or swooning to dubstep, but they are here, and most remain for the next 90 minutes.
The magnetic key: Nas isn’t fading away. He sounds hungry enough, the band responds well to him, and his catalog is surprisingly deep with crowd-pleasers. If you went to the GZA show at Tip’s a few weeks back, you know what faded sounds like; Nas sounds strong at Voodoo. Not that I ever loved “Hate Me Now,” but it reminds us—speaking of Wu—that Nas has engaged various alignments (the original of “Hate” had Puffy lurching over it) but remains a lone wolf. Yes, there was the Firm, yes, he had beefs and guest appearances, yes, he represents a long Queens story, but the career of Nas isn’t marked by various sidemen, business managers or cliques (no Dame Dash; see: the ups and downs of AZ; no DJ Premier collabo album (damnit!)), but rather by his individual resilience and the respect of great producers.
That inner strength shows tonight. He displays it on “Loco-motive” from the new album, produced by Large Professor, and adorned with visions of him in his truck admiring Slick Rick’s imagination.
After an intro dedicating the next song to inner city dwellers enduring street violence, “Got Ur Self (a Gun)” surprises him, a minor mix-up, but he laughs it off and goes in. “Made You Look” moves the crowd with its gunshots and juking hook. Good rappers can lead a band, and many bands can keep up with a rapper, but Z (@iBelieveInZ) is responsive, with dynamic presence and range, and the changes to the original instrumentals are just enough to energize them but not overwhelm the point: supporting a great lyricist. As a result, Nas is comfortable as hell all night.
The set ends with “One Mic” from Stillmatic, the album that marked his popular return and began the ascent to national festival status. It starts as a low heartbeat, pitches steeply with indignation, plunges back to that pulse, then repeats. A feat of breath and emotion, the song catches Nas off-balance with its speed, the sharp turns enabled in the first place by his own talent. He rides the band and doesn’t give up, battling the tempo and taming his creation, finally dissolving back to that certainty: “All I need is one mic.”
When the lights come up and bodies part, the air feels crisp. I feel full and make my way toward the museum.
1. No Introduction
2. The Don
3. NY State of Mind
4. It Ain’t Hard to Tell
6. The World is Yours
7. If I Ruled the World
9. Hate Me Now
10. Street Dreams
12. Got Ur Self
13. Made You Look
14. One Mic