The material — certifiably classic, virtually all of it — is undeniable.
So the only question when it comes to a Lauryn Hill and Nas performance is how (and, on occasion, in Ms. Hill's case, when?) it will be executed. Can Nas, now 43, demolish "One Mic" with the same rollercoaster passion he channelled in a studio in 2001? Can Hill, now 43, cover herself covering Roberta Flack with the fierce sweetness of 1996?
The King of Queensbridge squashed any notion of a phone-in performance the instant he bounded onto the Budweiser Stage and unravelled a firestorm of greatest hits like he was running at you. "Got Yourself a Gun" bled into "Halftime" soared into "Get Down" burst into a sing-along for "I Can" hopped into "Represent" followed by "Nas Is Like." Clothed in all-black everything (tee, jeans, kicks, throwback Troop jacket), the jewels on his wrist and neck sparkling in the stage lights, Nas packed a jump in his step and a trademark half-moon in his fade.
He smiled often and rhymed crisp and on time, as a living legend should. He looked fit and young as black-and-white images of the Black Panthers flashed large behind him. And Nas embraced even his most dubious hits, throwing himself into Bravehearts' 2003 club banger "Oochie Wally" and "You Owe Me." The latter, an R&B crossover stab purists pretend never happened, featured the guest vocals of drummer/singer Eddie Cole, nephew of Nat King.
As a black-and-white photo of an Afro-era Michael Jackson glowed and his DJ cued up "Human Nature," Nas reminded the sold-out throng of stuck-in-the-'90s heads how MJ cleared a sample for "a nobody" back in 1994 then ripped "It Ain't Hard to Tell." After taking us through all three verses of "One Mic," his MC manifesto, Nas vanished with a promise to return.
Then, we waited. As the house DJ spun Curtis Mayfield and Public Enemy, the intermission was long enough that momentum earned was lost.
But when an extensive 10-piece band and three choreographed backup singers took the dais, slow-grooving into "Everything Is Everything," the mood lifted for Hill's entrance.
Decked out in Aspen chic — long, black, bubble goose hooded vest; red toque; $1,400 Balenciaga sweater; encrusted designer shades — Hill directed her band through passionate, albeit tweaked, versions of the best songs from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and the Fugees' The Score. Neither Hill nor Nas tried pushing the new stuff on the 30- and 40-somethings who congregated to hear their high school or college soundtrack.
Unlike Nas, Hill isn't content to recreate the songs people paid to hear. She puts a speedy twist on her most familiar work, leading to creative and often rewarding detours, but at the expense of stirring crowd participation and summoning nostalgic joy. At their worst, the new takes — although presented expertly — can be off-putting. Maybe "Ready or Not" doesn't need a remix when it's perfect as is.
"I have to upgrade them a bit so that they're still exciting and fresh and they're new," Hill once explained to MTV. "There's something almost jazz-like the way I approach performances. I'm not sure if the audience really understands. We need, or at least I need, a certain amount of spontaneity, a certain amount of improvisation every show."
In a wise bit of pacing, Hill passed the stage back to Nas ("NY State of Mind"! "Made You Look"!), who gave it right back to Hill ("Doo Wop [That Thing]"!), thrusting the double billing toward its inevitable climax: a spot-on duet of "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)," one of so many classics from their '90s zenith.
"This generation will make history," Nas shouted. "They'll talk about us for 1,000 years!"