Nas at First Avenue, reviewed by Nate Patrin

Nas First Avenue, September 5 By Nate Patrin

There was something unusual bobbing above the crowd at one point during Nas’s concert at First Avenue on Friday night. It was a painting depicting a portrait of the Queensbridge icon in bright pop-art style, and I was told that it belonged to local rap heavyweight Trama, who planned on getting it autographed. That says plenty about Nas’s bonafides: fuck YouTube, this man belongs on canvas. You could say that he’s sealed his place in hip hop history after Illmatic, and you’d be right -- but you could also say that he’s spent most of his career trying and failing to live up to that masterful debut 14 years ago, and that’s where opinions are bound to diverge.

Nas proved Friday that he’s in the unusual position of being both legendary and underrated. The former aspect of his career was clearly laid out as he blasted through a string of verses from Illmatic and his ’96 follow-up It Was Written, derided as a commercial grab upon release but a well-aging slice of intelligent, observant thug/club rap in retrospect. The “underrated” part came in as he interspersed selections from his last two records, Hip Hop Is Dead and Untitled -- albums that were panned as uneven and lifeless by critics and bloggers I usually trust. But there was nothing lifeless in the recent tracks Nas tore into, including opener “N.I.G.G.E.R.,” crowd call-and-response favorite “Hip Hop Is Dead” and Murdoch-merking anti-media diatribe “Sly Fox.” And with the full-throttle energy that permeated his other post-millenial selections (“Made You Look,” “Got Ur Self A…,” the stirring closer “One Mic”), almost completely free of hypeman backup and space-filling stage patter, it became clear how he’s managed to remain not just relevant but crucial since 2001’s Stillmatic helped spur his current renaissance.

Most of all, though, Nas was a populist. This was one of the most diverse crowds I’d ever seen at First Ave, and he played to everyone -- player anthems for the fellas and slow jams for the ladies, gun-clap talk for the hustlers and sociopolitical insight for the philosophers. (I also gotta mention that it is a hell of a time we’re living in where you can go to a hip-hop show and see people fit in when they’re proudly rocking merch for a presidential candidate.) He even got a couple dudes near the front of the stage to stop fighting and shake hands. And one line from “Testify” stood out: “Little rap fans who live way out in safe suburbia/Would you stand with me, a United States murderer?” It was clear that, at least for the suburbanites in this audience, the answer was yes.

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