Nasir Jones is a man who shouldn’t need much of an introduction, as he is often regarded as one of the greatest hip-hop artists of all time. I had previously seen him perform at my very first rap concert, the 2009 Rock The Bells Festival in Los Angeles with Damian Marley, and again at the 2011 Rock The Bells in New York, but this would be my first time seeing him perform in my hometown, Toronto. He was actually here just last month performing at Ryerson University’s frosh week picnic for free, although alumni like myself weren’t allowed to attend. Talking to some of the current students I know, I realized a lot of them have no idea who Nas is, which brings us to why he’s on tour right now.
While Nas is usually able to evolve and bring something fresh to the table whenever he releases a new album, people who were born in the 1990’s or later may not realize that he created one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time twenty years ago. This is why he’s out on this unique tour; to celebrate the 20th anniversary of an album that changed hip-hop, and to premier his new documentary film which reflects on the classic, Illmatic. This tour would involve a screening of the documentary, Time Is Illmatic, followed by a live performance of the entire Illmatic album by Nas himself.
Tickets for this show were hard to get. Unless you were online right at 10am on the day they went on sale, you likely had to pay a hefty premium through secondary markets. This is because Nas is an artist who could typically sell out a venue like the Molson Amphitheatre, but this intimate film screening and show at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre could only fit less than a tenth of that capacity. I showed up at the venue shortly after doors opened for the first of two consecutive shows Nas would do that night.
I don’t normally write film reviews, so take mine for what it is. Time Is Illmatic was very moving to me, as it was about more than just a great hip-hop album, but about the environment that inspired it. The documentary spoke on the North American economy during the 1980’s, and it was kind of sad to be reminded of problems back then that are still relevant in 2014. Racism, classism, and the monetization of U.S. prisons. An education system so bad that Nas’ dad actually encouraged him to drop out of school in order to focus on his craft. A lack of support for the lower tax bracket leading to every single person in the Illmatic photo shoot ending up years later either dead or in jail, except for Nas. To quote Nas’ reaction: “that’s f***ed up”.
The movie wasn’t all negative though; Nas’ brother Jungle in particular brought humour to the film even amongst the tragedy (like the first thing he told Nas after being shot). It was funny to hear about some of Nas’ early interactions with other artists (like Roxanne Shante). I also enjoyed seeing some footage from the very same 2011 Rock The Bells festival I attended, where Nas performed his Illmatic album and more with guest appearances from AZ, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor, MC Serch, Lauryn Hill and Steve Nash. Overall, it was a great film documenting the environment Nas grew up in, the obstacles he overcame, and the influence he has today (highlighting the fellowship he started at Harvard University).
The credits for Time Is Illmatic didn’t role for long before the screen was rolled up and the stage was revealed behind it, with DJ Green Lantern already behind the boards. The intro from Illmatic, “The Genesis”, immediately began to play, and pretty soon Nas came out to set things off with “N.Y. State of Mind”. He had another screen behind him with visuals to go with every song, and a gold chain and watch that lit up the room. Nas continued with the Illmatic album, performing “Life’s A Bitch” without AZ, “The World Is Yours”, and “Halftime”.
“Halftime” saw DJ Green Lantern switch up the beat for the second and third verses, and there was a bit of a light-show perfectly choreographed with his scratches. Nas also took the time to acknowledge the crowd, shouting out those who were only around a year old when Illmatic was released (like my bro) and those who were able to buy it back in 1994. Continuing through the album, he performed “Memory Lane” before switching up the order of the last few songs. He did “Represent” next, with the last bar of the last verse of that song making an obvious transition into “One Love”.
One difference I noticed between this show and the other couple times I’ve seen Nas was that he interacted with the crowd a lot (which I’ve come to observe is a benefit of most small-venue shows). One fan gave him an unlit joint which he said he’d save for later, since he had to do another show immediately after ours. He did take a few puffs later on though, when a fan gave him a lit joint. He also spoke directly to us, complimenting the t-shirts and albums fans had of his. Before performing “One Love”, he started giving a speech to dedicate the song to those who couldn’t be with us, and a fan was actually able to interrupt him because the room was so small (compared to how we’re used to seeing Nas).
“One Love” was performed a bit differently too, as DJ Green Lantern switched the beat to “Sky’s The Limit” by Notorious B.I.G. for the last verse. Nas then performed another head-nodder with “One Time 4 Your Mind” before a little Michael Jackson tribute, playing “Human Nature”. He explained that back when he was releasing a single to promote the album, he wanted to sample a great artist, and so Large Professor sampled this Michael Jackson song to help create the last song on Illmatic: “It Ain’t Hard To Tell”. Nas performed the song while clapping hands with fans in the front row, rapping into their phones, and signing autographs. The Illmatic album was complete, but the show wasn’t quite yet done.
Similar to his 2011 Rock The Bells set, Nas did a few extra songs on top of the entire Illmatic album. He performed his 1999 hit “Hate Me Now” with huge flames and explosions lighting up the screen behind him, and also did “Made You Look” off his 2002 album, God’s Son. Many fans rushed the aisles to get some autographs, and Nas actually signed a lot of them. After the performance, he said that he couldn’t sign everything, but he thanked us for our support over the past twenty years and walked off stage.
Overall, it was great to see Nas in a small venue like this. It felt like he could actually see each person, rather than looking into a massive pit of bodies like he would at a stadium or festival show. His performance was great as usual, although he did still leave a lot of gaps in his lyrics for the fans to shout out (something I think he tends to overdo). The on-screen visuals and the choreographed lighting were nice additions to the set. Although his time on stage was limited due to having a second show to perform, there was the benefit of not having to wait for anything.
The Queen Elizabeth Theatre was an excellent choice for this type of event, as every seat had a clear view of the screen and stage. My only gripe was that there were two separate lineups for food and drinks respectively, and you didn’t know until you got to the very front because the signs were too small. Other than that, it was a nice atmosphere. People of all ages were in attendance, and it was nice to see younger teens/20-something-year-olds at a Nas show. Although Nas has previously released an album called Hip-Hop Is Dead, he said at the end of the show he was thankful that hip-hop is still alive.
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