Rock the Bells Molson Canadian Amphitheatre, Toronto ON July 5

Rock the Bells Molson Canadian Amphitheatre, Toronto ON July 5
In many ways, the Toronto stop of the 2009 Rock the Bells tour served to validate the city's increasing significance in the hip-hop realm. KRS-One, who was the host in the second half of the show, definitely wanted to ram this point home, highlighting the importance of Canadian rapper Michie Mee, who joined him on stage and had welcomed him when he first arrived in 1986. Additionally, the presence of K'naan on the bill added to the feeling that Canada was not a facsimile stop on the summer-long tour.

For the assembled crowd, it definitely was not a repeat of last year's show in terms of where the festival was held. The Molson Amphitheatre was a definite upgrade from the Arrow Hall environs of the 2008 edition, which was reportedly replete with intolerable waits and line-ups. This time, though, the punters probably had more fun as an eclectic parade of acts hit the stage during the ten-hour-plus affair.

Slaughterhouse, a "supergroup" of underground artists featuring Crooked I, Joell Ortiz, Joe Budden and Royce the 5'9" took the stage early in the day. Their set was highlighted by Royce's "Boom" and Budden's "Pump It Up," tracks that were tellingly from the individual artists' back catalogue as opposed to new material, but the dodgy sound did not do the new material any favours.

Things picked up soon after, however, when Toronto native K'naan hit the stage to a warm reception, as he played tracks off his latest effort Troubadour with an a cappella version of "Somalia" resonating particularly well.

Things got going considerably when the recently reunited Reflection Eternal (Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek) had their turn at the mic. Kweli was the first MC to benefit from the fact that most festival-goers had now arrived and his medley of old Reflection Eternal and solo material spurred mass hand-waving. Regrettably, though, an appearance Toronto vocalist Graph Nobel, who is now in the Idle Warship group with Kweli, went virtually unnoticed by the masses.

KRS-One did an admirable job as host/lecturer/performer in between sets before the RZA entered to send the crowd into delirium as the Wu-Tang lynchpin ran through a set of foolproof Wu classics. The Bobby Digital section of the RZA's set was underwhelming in comparison, but he clearly relished performing regardless, revealing to the crowd it was his 40th birthday.

EPMD's set was significantly better than the duo's last Rock the Bells Toronto stop two years ago, when a bottle was tossed at their then-DJ Scratch as he was setting up. It was a shame, though, that most of the crowd in the venue were clueless when EPMD dropped classics from their '80s vaults. However, Sermon did get the onlookers involved when he extolled the group's brand of "real hip-hop." "No 'Laffy Taffy!'" he proclaimed to audience approval, and his late '90s solo output seemed to be the only thing the majority of the crowd recognized.

The demographic leanings of this crowd to more recent hip hop was confirmed during Big Boi's extremely tight set. Utilizing the video screens to precise effect, his energetic delivery of Outkast hits did not suffer from the absence of Andre 3000 in the least. In comparison, Mos Def, who was added at the last minute as a replacement for Common, meandered through a sometimes aimless and bewildering set, which often explicitly paid tribute to Michael Jackson. Some in the crowd began yelling "Black Star!" and eventually Talib Kweli joined his old rhyming partner to lift the roof with renditions of "Definition" and the timeless "Respiration."

The Black Star reunion that everyone had been waiting for prepped the stage for another combination that, on paper, at least did not seem logical at all: Nas and Damian Marley's combination set. However, it was as impressive, showing that Nas, who was also on last year's tour, was willing to experiment and add wrinkles to his own live act.

After warming up the crowd with "Hip-Hop Is Dead" and a couple of can't-lose Illmatic tracks backed by Marley's band, Nas brought out Marley himself to collaborate on a couple of songs, which found the two going back and forth lyrically and even included Marley singing over "Represent" to refreshing effect. Eventually, Nas ceded the stage to Marley, who dipped into both his and his father's music, predictably yielding the biggest response with "Welcome to Jamrock."

When Nas returned to close out his portion of the set with "Hate Me Now," it was evident that he brought a lot of hunger to his performance. In the past, he has been able to coast a little because of the strength of his back catalogue and unwavering fan devotion.

At the end, Nas brought Marley out again to preview their upcoming Distant Relatives collaboration and showed genuine love to K'naan, who helped visually manifest the project's diasporic theme. When all three bowed to end the festival, it was a fitting end to a satisfyingly inclusive Rock the Bells.