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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Nas @ Harley-Davidson Roadhouse, Summerfest

July 1, 2014

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Nas has spent much of the year on a victory lap, celebrating the 20th anniversary of his debut Illmatic with an expanded reissue of the album and a lengthy tour performing the record in its entirety. There’s some risk in that nostalgia. In rap, after all, becoming fixated on the past is usually a telltale sign that you aren’t relevant in the present. But if any album deserves the fanfare it’s Illmatic, a record that’s informed a generation’s impression of what a classic hip-hop album sounds and feels like more than any other. It’s one of hip-hop’s true sacred texts, a gold standard that debut rap albums will be judged against for decades to come, and the 20-year milestone is as good an occasion as any to marvel at how relevant it remains. Save for a few references to baseheads and pagers, the record has hardly dated itself at all, and as Nas noted Tuesday night in front of a juiced, overflowing crowd at Summerfest, the issues Illmatic addressed are the same ones hip-hop is grappling with today: violence, poverty and imprisonment, themes the genre has rarely explored more vividly than Nas did on his debut.

The other risk for Nas in succumbing to Illmatic nostalgia is that it plays into the narrative, most memorably propagated by his one-time rival Jay-Z, that Nas has just one classic album and the rest of his career has been a gradual decline. His show Tuesday dispelled that notion. If anything his performance came to life after he finished the opening Illmatic stretch of that set. With that lofty material out of the way, he was free to run through his big, crowd-moving singles unimpeded: “If I Ruled The World,” “Nas is Like,” “Street Dreams,” “Hate Me Now,” “Got UR Self A…,” and “Get Down,” all of which shook the bleachers, though none more than the five-alarm breakbeat of “Made You Look.”

Blame The Roots, perhaps, but at some point the false notion spread in hip-hop circles that live bands are fundamentally superior to prerecorded tracks. Nas’s show, though, was a testament to how powerful the old-fashioned one MC, one DJ stage setup can be when done right. With veteran NY rap enthusiast DJ Green Lantern backing him, remixing, scratching, blending and truncating each track for maximum impact, the show never stalled or dragged—it just delivered one thrilling jolt after another. The approach may have been old-school, but the performance itself was always gloriously in the moment.