Live review: Nas peforms Illmatic
Hip-hop nostagia fills Glasgow's O2 Academy and inspires hope for a Nas comeback
Given the creativity of contemporary hip-hop, nostalgia for the early ‘90s seems a little redundant. Nonetheless, Nas’s 1994 debut Illmatic remains as vital as ever, with young rappers like Joey Bada$$ invoking its classic boom-bap sound. Illmatic represents the absolute pinnacle of early ‘90s New York hip-hop, with a world-beating young MC rhyming over beats by the best producers of the day: DJ Premier, Large Professor, Q Tip, Pete Rock.
As a rapper, Nas broke new ground with his complex rhythms, ingenious wordplay and vivid storytelling. Documenting life on the streets of Queensbridge, Illmatic documents a community ravaged by drugs, racism and trickle-down economics. There’s the sing-song nihilism of ‘Life’s A Bitch’, and the poignant letter to a friend in prison of ‘One Love’. Yet the album is also a testament to life in the face of adversity, celebrating the community and its role in rap history. It also takes rap braggadocio to baroque heights, with Nas describing himself as ‘half man, half amazing’ and claiming the world as his own.
Live performances of classic albums might lack the element of surprise, but it’s thrilling to hear the opening minutes of Illmatic booming out of a massive sound system. The cinematic quality of introduction ‘The Genesis’ is heightened in the live arena, with footage of New York subway cars accompanying the raw synth and drum machine snap of the Wild Style soundtrack. DJ Premier’s siren-like Donald Byrd sample hypes the crowd for ‘NY State of Mind’ as Nas takes the stage. The edgy Joe Chambers piano riff and head-nodding beat kicks in and Nas is off, reeling off the dense verses he famously recorded in a single take. At key points he lets the crowd finish his lines for him: ‘I never sleep, cos sleep is the cousin of death’.
The sound in the Academy is booming but muddy, meaning that some of the finer details are a little lost in the mix. ‘Life’s A Bitch’ is cut short before the trumpet solo by Nas’s jazz musician father, Olu Dara, is heard, while the gothic celeste figure which graces ‘Represent’ is buried under the bass. Nas’s lyrics are as clear as they can be in a space like this: we can only imagine how electrifying he’d be in a club, where every syllable cuts through.
The Illmatic set ends with Nas thanking Michael Jackson for allowing him to sample ‘Human Nature’ on ‘It Ain’t Hard To Tell’, pausing to play the 1983 hit over a back projection of the young singer. It’s a curious moment, but it does serve to remind the audience of Jackson’s openness to hip-hop, one that was not always shared by his superstar peers.
The second half of the set cherry picks from Nas’s post-Illmatic catalogue. ‘If I Ruled The World’, with its great Lauryn Hill chorus, sounds particularly euphoric, while the ludicrous ‘Carmina Burana’ sampling ‘Hate Me Now’ is suitably bombastic in this setting. There’s a snatch of the 1999 DJ Premier reunion ‘Nas Is Like’ and a full airing of 2001’s ‘Got Urself a Gun’, its chant-along hook sampled from Alabama 3’s ‘Woke Up This Morning’.
As the show comes to an end Nas comments that 2015 feels like a new beginning. Here’s hoping that by looking back to his finest achievements, Nas comes back strong.
Reviewed at 02 Academy, Glasgow, Tues 2 June.