RTB 2012: The New Nas closes out the festival
It’s so interesting what a difference a year makes. This is Nas’ second stint in a row as a Rock The Bells headliner. This couldn’t be more different than last year, and there are plenty of differences to note. First of all, the stage trappings are different—gone are the huge Queensbridge projects backdrops. The (sound effect) bomb-throwing DJ, and especially his mic, are gone (thankfully).
Words: Kevin Lee, Pictures: Waylan Choy / August 27, 2012
It’s so interesting what a difference a year makes. This is Nas’ second stint in a row as a Rock The Bells headliner. This couldn’t be more different than last year, and there are plenty of differences to note. First of all, the stage trappings are different—gone are the huge Queensbridge projects backdrops. The (sound effect) bomb-throwing DJ, and especially his mic, are gone (thankfully). And there’s new material—whereas he was reliving past material mostly last year, when he performed the entirety of Illmatic, he now has a new album out, Life Is Good which has responded well with both the critics and the market. Nas himself has never looked quite this content in a long time, if not ever, an attitude shift on his part that formed the philosophy of the new album. For the performance, the greatest change was that the empty space onstage was gone, replaced by a full touring band, with two guitarists, keys, drums, a horn, a backup vocalist and some turntables—the works.
He let his fans know right away about the new album, starting his set with “No Introduction” and “The Don”. In big letters on the screen at nearly all times was “Life Is Good”, not only for album promotion but as a motto for the night and an mantra, which he repeats many times throughout the night. At the third track, “Hip-Hop is Dead”, Nas’ intentionally provocative track, we start to see what a difference a band can make. On record, the song’s too obvious sample of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vita” sounds too obvious. Live with this band however, it was a frenzied kinetic blast of rock and roll and adrenaline that shook the amphitheater and kept the momentum going that the opener established.
It wasn’t just the rock samples that got a boost from the new stage setup. A track like “New York State of Mind”, although it only lasted one verse here, was given new intensity. Where the monotonous keys of the original recording gave a sinister edge without overshadowing Nas’ lyrics, here they grew in intensity as the keys were complemented and eventually overtaken by an overdriven guitar as the track neared its payoff line, “I never sleep / cos sleep is the cousin of death”. Naturally, the last bar was omitted so that the crowd could fill in, and they did so emphatically.
Sometime near the beginning of the set Nas breaks down the entire philosophy behind this project and his life in general as well. “So how did we get from Life is a Bitch, then you die, to Live is Good?” he says, referring to the track from Illmatic that did not make the set list with its refrain intact. A singular focus on the positive was his answer, a new philosophy that has taken him past the disappointments of the divorce with Kelis, the criticisms toward his music and himself in the wake of several lackluster alubms, and being the butt of gossip about himself and his family.
The older songs did not enjoy such positivity, however. For instance, one track that made the set list was the cynical but defiant “Hate Me Now”, his track off of God’s Son which was his original means to respond to such criticism. While the band played the track with vigor, and the video screens replaced the phrase “Life is Good” with flames, it wasn’t hard to notice that this track wasn’t exactly sticking with the program. Nas did acknowledge the discrepancy, ending the track by coyly slurring, “And you can love me now, my niggas”.
The magic sauce of real musicians can’t solve everything, however. “Got Yourself a Gun” also had the problem of an obvious sample, taken from the theme song of The Sopranos, which at the time was the most buzzed TV show. And while the band played well, dulling out some of the cheapness of the main synth melody in the instrumentals and boosting the baseline, it was a still the kind of track that needed some rearrangement help as well, and the band turned to the beat from Dr. Dre’s “Deep Cover” to end the track. That same trick however was better used for “If I Ruled The World”, his collaboration with Lauryn Hill, with a new ending for the song that took advantage of the fact that with Hill absent, they could deviate from the sheet music. In this case, Nas’ backup singer delivered a soaring reinterpretation of the hook, with completely new backing music, a smooth, quiet storm melody that eased some of the tension in the song and allowed it to float away to its ending.
And he continued on, with new songs from the new album, like “Locomotion”, “Bye Baby” (his ode to his failed marriage), and “Daughters”, sprinkled around a collection of old favorites, like “Made You Look”, the “Apache” break fueled track which once held a lofty position in his sets. (During the tour with Damien Marley, it would be his only solo song on the set.) This year, it was the second-to-last, giving way to “One Mic”, his simmering then manic track that was his experiment in the soft/loud, emotionally demonstrative dynamic so popular with kids. And here was Nas’ rock star moment, complete with a rock band, almost as if it was a response to the Kid Cudi and all the up-and-comers playing on other stages and other nights, like this middle-aged man, dogged and carrying baggage from life, can still play and win this young man’s game.