Concert Review: Nas & Lauryn Hill at the Budweiser Stage in Toronto

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Just one week after seeing Jay-Z headline his Made In America festival in Philadelphia, we’ve returned home to see two of his biggest rivals over his multi-decade career perform at the Budweiser Stage (f/k/a Molson Amphitheatre).  While Lauryn Hill only competed with Jay in terms of chart positions, awards and accolades for their 1998 albums, Nas is the more obvious rival, having traded diss tracks with him back in the early 2000’s to make what’s still to this day one of the most debated rivalries in Hip-Hop history.  When talking about the greatest Hip-Hop artists of all time, these three tend to often come up in the conversation, and it makes for an epic two-week span seeing all three of them perform.

Nas’ last performance in Toronto was in 2014, when he did an intimate show at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre celebrating the twenty-year anniversary of his classic debut album, Illmatic.  He’s performed the entire album from beginning to end at the last couple shows I’ve seen him at, with only a handful of other songs on the set list, and seems to have been celebrating the timeless classic for a good part of the decade.  Going into this concert, it was unclear if we would get yet another Illmatic performance, or if Nas would show some love to the other nine albums in his catalogue.  There have also been rumours spreading for over a year now that a new Nas album is on the way (his first since 2012’s Life Is Good); maybe he’d preview some new music at this show.

Lauryn Hill on the other hand has only one solo album besides her work with The Fugees to perform, but it’s a deeply impactful one.  In 2017, the Grammy award-winning singer/emcee has celebrated her classic 1998 album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, being one of only four Hip-Hop albums entered into the prestigious Harvard University Library (Nas also joining her with Illmatic).  While she’s been touring more often in recent years, I haven’t seen her perform a full set since the 2010 Rock The Bells festival in New York, where she showed up late and had a cluttered, shortened set.  She’s developed a reputation for showing up late to shows and changing the tempo of her songs beyond recognition, but maybe this 2017 tour would be different.

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Before we got to see either of these two legends though, the opener for this stop on the tour would be reggae singer Chronixx, who I’ve only heard as a guest feature on Joey Bada$$’ 2017 album All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$.  The reggae singer performed with a band backing him, and they relaxed the crowd with some mellow chunes as the seats slowly filled up.  As the sun set, DJ Green Lantern got on the turntables and began spinning some tracks as we waited for the headliners.  With both Nas and Lauryn Hill being co-headliners, it was unclear which of them we’d see perform first, or how long we’d have to wait if it was Lauryn coming out first.  Before we knew it, Nas surprised everyone and came out swinging with a medley of his hits!

This was not the same Illmatic set list Nas had been doing in recent years, as he came out rocking hit songs off of several of his other albums.  He dove right into the early 2000’s with songs like “Got Yourself A Gun,” “Get Down,” and “I Can,” and also took it back to ’99 with “Nas Is Like” and “You Owe Me.”  With a live band as well as DJ Green Lantern backing him, he kept the energy turning, only performing one verse of each song before moving on to another hit.  While he did hit a couple Illmatic tracks like “Halftime” and “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” (with his Michael Jackson tribute preceding the latter track), most of the songs he rocked were off his later albums.  He did a highly energetic performance of his Stillmatic single “One Mic,” nailing the crescendo on the first two verses before fading out on the third and telling the crowd he’ll be right back.

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Lauryn Hill was up next, and while she didn’t quite live up to her reputation of making the crowd wait for hours, there was still about forty minutes between when Nas wrapped up and when Lauryn’s band started playing.  She came out to that hard-hitting beat from “Everything Is Everything,” although the tempo was sped up and it didn’t quite sound the same.  It turned out she and her band remixed every song she performed, completely changing the pace and adding additional bridges to the songs.  Some songs were unrecognizable, while others just didn’t have the same vibe as the original recordings.  She sped up the tempo on “Lost Ones” and it was cool seeing her slay those verses in triple-time, but the remixes didn’t always work for the other songs.

She got into a Fugees segment, performing several tracks off of The Score album like “How Many Mics” and “Fu-Gee-La,” and everything sounded cluttered.  Between Lauryn Hill’s sped up, sometimes incoherent rapping, her three background singers harmonizing, and the various instruments on stage, there were moments where the songs just sounded like a lot of noise.  The crowd tried to sing along when Lauryn performed the classic “Ready Or Not,” but contrary to the lyrics, Lauryn did not “take it slowly,” and rushed through a much more up-tempo version of the song.  It was cool seeing her rap all the verses, including the other Fugee members’, but that classic hook didn’t hit as hard, with the background vocalists singing the main hook while Lauryn adlibbed.

Things got a bit better when Lauryn performed another classic with “Killing Me Softly,” as her vocals were more in-pocket and recognizable even with the changes she made.  It was easier catching the vibe on this last song, with less confusion trying to figure out what she was singing.  As she wrapped up the song, the lights dimmed and the crowd’s attention went to a giant circle on the jumbo screen; the music quickly flipped into that familiar sample from “N.Y. State of Mind” and Nas brought all the energy back to the stage!

The beat from “N.Y. State of Mind” sounded much more badass with the live instrumentation, as Nas slayed all his verses on the track.  Unlike Lauryn Hill, Nas kept all his songs in a familiar space, and the crowd was able to rap along with him as he went through his classic verses.  A smooth piano intro led him into another Illmatic track with “The World Is Yours,” after which he shouted “let’s go through the years!” as he proceeded to go through some more of his hits in chronological order.  He took it to 1996’s It Was Written, the guitar playing him into the first verse of “The Message” before he had a dope transition between the classic Eurythmics song “Sweet Dreams” and his own “Street Dreams.”  After showing off the laid-back version of Nas, he turned things up a notch and got into the aggressive “Hate Me Now,” then found balance between the two deliveries on 2002’s “Made You Look.”

After completely destroying the verses on the last couple songs, Nas went backstage again and Lauryn Hill returned for a few more songs off of her solo album.  She performed a barely recognizable version of “To Zion,” but then was able to get the crowd back into it with the mellowed out “Ex Factor,” that familiar hook catching ears and making heads nod.  She then brought the energy back up with her classic “Doo Wop (That Thing),” performing the first verse at a familiar pace before letting the band completely change the sound again.  There was a pause and a few looks of confusion, but then Lauryn began singing the beginning of her collaborative song with Nas, “If I Ruled The World (Imagine That),” and the two headliners joined each other on stage for the final song of the evening.

They performed the entire song from beginning to end, Nas nailing his verses and Lauryn finally sticking to the original tempo for an entire song as she sang the hook and bridge.  It may have been the most energetic performance of the entire night, with the entire crowd singing along to the classic track.  Nas and Lauryn both left the stage, and I was hoping Nas would return for an encore since he has so much more material he could go through, but the house lights came on and the crowd started clearing out.

Overall, this was a fun night for fans of classic Hip-Hop, despite the remixing of the songs.  Talking to fans after the show, some loved the way Lauryn put a new twist on all her hit songs, while others found the unfamiliarity to be a buzzkill.  Nas on the other hand gave me almost exactly what I wanted to see from him, which was a balanced set touching on at least half of his albums.  While he didn’t perform any songs made within the last decade, he did at least pull a fair amount from his first six albums.  Another cool thing about this show was the execution; rather than simply have one artist perform for an hour each, the two headliners kept things interesting by taking turns rocking the stage with the live band throughout the night.  It was an evening of strictly throwbacks, and you could say Lauryn Hill’s performance was a test to see if fans would still remember the songs even when she changed up the style.

Toronto was just the third stop on this fall tour, as Nas & Lauryn Hill are set to go through the U.S. before wrapping up the tour in Vancouver in October.

 

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