There’s nothing nerdier than a white dude earnestly breaking down hip-hop, but based on the crowd for Nas’s show at Myth last night, I’m probably not alone this morning. Nas’s new record, provocatively entitled Hip Hop is Dead, is obviously trying to elicit outrage, or at least some kind of visceral reaction, from his audience—and it succeeds, even though it’s really just a new title for Nas’s compassionate gangsta-rap shtick.
Before we get into Nasty Nas’s performance, let me just say this about the club: it’s always worth the drive. Getting to the VIP room at Myth is like going through airport security—a cop marks you with pen at the door, and then you’re given multiple ink stamps and multicolor bracelets when you get inside, and then you’re escorted by a massive bouncer through the labyrinthine stairs and passageways to your suite. But when you get there: club heaven. Great sightlines, cush leather banquettes throbbing to the heavy bass, flatscreens tuned to Sportscenter, private bathrooms, your own bartender.
All right, suburban gush over. Maybe it’s just the low nightlife expectations that begin to set in as you blow through Little Canada. By the time you actually get to Maplewood, you’re relieved to find cold designer vodka.
Last night, against a huge “Hip Hop is Dead” backdrop with his DJ set up behind a black coffin and bouquets of white lilies, Nas came out alone, sagging in his jeans, with unlaced Tims and his shades wrapped tight. He shed his purple hoodie to reveal a cable of gold with a gauge thicker than my wrist. Was this a wry comment on hip-hop’s present-day excess or a nod to its “Paid in Full” past? Regardless, the man has presence. He spit out his first single, “Hip Hop Is Dead” of course, with a ferocity that you don’t hear on his records, where his voice is usually locked into a more demure, poetic mode. The crowd, split halfway between white dudes in cocked ball-caps and black dudes in cocked ball-caps, was immediately nodding and bobbing. After another rhyme from the new record, he started in on what everybody was there for, tracks from his ’94 debut, Illmatic. We weren’t there to be reminded of how great this album is—we know how great it is. We just wanted to hear it live, and we got half of it—“New York State of Mind,” “Represent,” “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” “Who’s World is This?” and “Life’s a Bitch and then you Die”—in quick succession.
As he went through his catalog, a running theme became apparent. After playing most of Illmatic, he started preaching between songs (fitting for a “funeral”). Taking shots at how hip-hop’s forgotten its past, urging the crowd to “f**k radio!” slamming first George Bush and then rival rappers (“50 Cent sucks. Oh, you didn’t know?”) and promising that the rest of the show would be “6,000 feet underground.” But going 6,000 feet underground and arriving at “Hate Me Now”—a song from ’99 with a $2 million Hype Williams video where Nas and Puff Daddy were crucified like twin-Christs seemed to test the limits of irony.
See, Nas is like Jose Canseco in baseball, or maybe something like what KG is becoming in basketball. Nas was supposed to be the greatest of all time out of the gate—and he kinda was (he did, after all, help resuscitate East Coast hip-hop)—but just like Jose, after that initial success, he started fighting his own legacy. In Minneapolis (or rather, the greater Minneapolis area) we know what real “underground rappers” are and, for better or for worse, they don’t go multiplatinum and they don’t beef with Jay-Z, or for that matter, sign with Jay-Z’s record company. Nas is just indulging in a little ego-assuaging packaging; shrouding himself with well-earned artistic authenticity to obscure the fact that his new stuff just doesn’t quite measure up. That’s the curse of a great first record. Guaranteed career longevity, and you can close your show with “Memory Lane”—another dominant Illmatic track—but ultimately memory lane is a painful place to be. Hip Hop is Dead would be a great record, if it didn’t come from the guy who did Illmatic; conversely, Hip Hop is Dead is worth listening to because it comes from the guy who did Illmatic. But after an hour and a half of a blazing Nas show, heavily reliant on past greatness, you get the feeling that the title to his new record is just wishful thinking.