There was the hungry, bubble-goosed second coming of Rakim, waving automatic guns at nuns, snuffing Jesus as a preteen and leaving us no choice but to memorize all the intricate rhymes he scribbled over the margins. There was the Scarface-aspiring Escobar, who puffed his chest at the haters, tapped Puffy for hooks and wore sunglasses you couldn't afford in his million-dollar videos. The pop-hit-chasing Nas dueting with Ginuwine. The defensive Nas, embroiled in an epic, super-ugly battle with Jay Z for rap and New York supremacy. Mourning Nas who lost his mother and tried to make sense of his position in the game after the deaths of Biggie and Pac. Lightning-rod Nas who claimed hip-hop dead and tried to name a major-label album Nigger. And, most recently, the responsible father accepting divorce, the Nas of his 2012 LP, Life Is Good.
None of them — or perhaps all of them — were on display on a rainy Wednesday night (October 8) in Toronto during a two-show stop of his Time Is Illmatic tour. First, ticket holders of the sold-out show watched the 74-minute documentary of the Queensbridge poet's 1994 debut. The project, directed by Washington D.C.'s One9 and written and produced by journalist Erik Parker, paints rich context for what birthed an undisputed hip-hop classic. Interviews with Nas' brother, Jungle, and father, Olu Dara, prove particularly illuminating as we see how family (musical, warm, broken) and place (the crack era, white-flight projects) and the rap climate (Boogie Down Productions vs. the Juice Crew) all contributed to a 19-year-old's worldview.
Make no mistake. This is not a documentary about the artist's life; it's all about that one album. And it's that zeroed-in focus that wins. Each song has a story, each producer (Pete Rock, DJ Premier, Q-Tip, Large Professor) a platform. The retelling of the night Nas' friend Ill Will got murdered is riveting. Same goes for Dara's justification for encouraging his sons to be high-school dropouts. And the flood of hope and grief that's gleaned from the album's photo shoot is incredible.
Could more life and pain and wisdom be packed into ten tunes?
As the film's credits roll, the screen retracts to the ceiling, and DJ Green Lantern cues the strains of "The Genesis," Illmatic's intro, which gives way to "N.Y. State of Mind."
We've seen Nas tour Illmatic before, at Rock the Bells for instance, but never in such an intimate setting, immediately after having immersed ourselves in his suffocating teenage world. And the impact is tremendous. One DJ, one MC. Each song played in order, in full, over a crisp sound system, backed by mood-setting visuals.
There are little curveballs, sure. The instrumental to "Sky's the Limit" is borrowed for "One Love" as a nod to Biggie; "Halftime" slips into Big Daddy Kane's "Ain't No Half Steppin'." He shouts out Michael Jackson for clearing the "Human Nature" sample for "It Ain't Hard to Tell," which flips between the remix and the original. And Nas tacks on a couple of non-Illmatic joints, "Hate Me Now" and "Made You Look," for good measure.
But it's the feeling the 41-year-old conveys that makes the night special. He's relaxed, confident, no longer railing against the shadow of his perfect-storm debut or trying to match it. He autographs T-shirts and snaps selfies mid-verse.
Someone throws a pre-roll onstage. He picks it up and holds it aloft: "Oh. You shouldn't have."
The frustration of '94 has long dissipated, but the 41-year-old's flow is more than intact.
"How many y'all actually bought Illmatic when it came out?" Nas asks. The crowd goes nuts in response.
"We old," he says, smiling.
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