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Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2008

Nas @ The Rave

Sept. 4, 2008

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   Nas has long been the most stoic and dead serious of all the major emcees. Especially since he returned to critical favor after his brief but image-killing flirtation with floss in the late '90s, he's been careful to avoid any hint of vice or banality. Of his four most recent albums, two explore his ever-consuming Jesus complex, one eulogizes the genre he loves, and the latest somberly charts the remnants of slavery. He carries the weight of the world-and the cross-on his self-beleaguered shoulders. While his one-time rival Jay-Z indulges in a tabloid-silly tiff with Oasis, Nas is locked in a sober battle with Bill O'Reilly for racial indemnification.

  In concert at the Rave on Thursday night, Nas was, as usual, all business, ripping through the requisite block of Illmatic songs with scant chitchat. It was surprising, then, when halfway through the set, cracks emerged in his staid veneer, as Nas flipped off his dark sunglasses and loosened up. After conceding that much of his canon is dedicated to "warrior music," he slyly dedicated a couple of up-tempo numbers to the ladies, slinking around the stage, his well-worn grimace giving way to an amused smirk.

  Although his good mood may have seemed at odds with the stark, untitled album he's touring behind, which he infamously attempted to name Nigger, that record isn't entirely as angry as its aborted title suggests. Nas avoided the album's most scathing songs-the ones where he rejects the racial identity that so many of his fellow rappers celebrate-in favor of the album's feistier inclusions, like its sparkling single, "Hero," and the O'Reilly-baiting "Sly Fox," two moments where Nas revels in the good fight instead of wallowing in martyrdom.

  Even the album's ambiguous closing track took on a measure of optimism. Where dueling choruses dominate "Black President," with Tupac's militaristic warning that "although it seems heaven sent, we ain't ready to see a black president" countering Barack Obama's "yes we can" assurances, Nas' cheerful performance Thursday left little doubt about which side he believed would prevail.

  "We can change the world," he said with a grin as the song ended.