Photos by Julia Schur
What is happening for Nasir Jones right now comes just once in a lifetime. The man known as Nasty Nas, Escobar, Nastrodamus and, most often, simply Nas is at a point on his extraordinary, fascinating timeline where he can see the entire story with utter clarity and gratefulness. He’s finally able to celebrate the good and the bad, to look forward and smile at whatever ills or blessings are coming his way. Gone are the Queens MC’s days of wallowing or identity crises, which found Nas continually claiming to be each of the very different men attached to the aforementioned aliases. Nas–the re-purified, found-again street poet and representative of whatever proves true and real at the given moment, the culmination of years of reinvention, experimentation, misfire, discovery, and innovation, the final, fully fledged man–has arrived.
This sentiment, one of acceptance of life’s up and downs, and the tone of culmination, permeated Nas‘ most recent studio release, his 10th LP, Life Is Good. The concept seems to have then seeped from the album into Nas’ approach to live shows, or perhaps this is just how he sees all aspects of life at this point. Either way, Nas gave Governor’s Ball the entirety of himself: all the energy he had on that particular night; each and every side he’s so impressively rendered throughout his career. Backed by the absolutely masterful DJ Green Lantern, a thunderous full band of drums, bass, keys, organ, horns, a rather out of place but nonetheless rocking guitarist, and a syrupy-sweet R&B singer, Nas set out to give the audience a show worth remembering–a full picture worth absorbing and reflecting upon.
The set opened with the fittingly reflective and epic “No Introduction”, which also served as Life Is Good‘s opener. Though Nas’ mic volume was a little low, the energy of a man finally grasping the entirety of his vastly rich story and, of course, of J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League’s knocking, emotional beat took hold of the audience. From then on, Nas and co. never let up. Playing for a crowd that was roughly three-fourths Illmatic fans and one-fourth “Daughters” fans, Nas faced the challenge of connecting with multiple generations at once and properly doing justice to his own 19 year body of work. With grace and skill, Nas slalomed through styles and themes while still managing to mostly go album-by-album. After a few tracks from Life Is Good came the requisite Illmatic classics, then a heavy dose of It Was Written, followed by dashes of Gods Son, Stillmatic, and even a couple Purple Tape cuts. Seamlessly weaving together the songs either through the vibe of the beat or through off-hand remarks that cleverly linked to a song’s title or topic, Nas explored his many areas of expertise. For “Cherry Wine”, he was a ladies’ man, for “NY State of Mind”, he was a stickup kid again, for “Smokin'”, he was a ganja-headed mafioso, for “Hate Me Now”–which is far more visceral and infinitely more enjoyable live–Nas was a fuck-the-world rebel. He occupied each of these roles on Randall’s Island not in the over-reaching, erratic fashion that brought about harsh criticism for several of his post-Illmatic releases, but in a more comfortable, knowing, and commanding fashion. Either Nas finally believed and felt himself to be all of these things at once, or was able to see, in the rear-view, the way in which he had been all these things, then contextualize it in a manner that felt justified, earned.
Nas’ mission wasn’t only to exhibit his songwriting range or the illustrious depths of his career, however. A self proclaimed “pretty mature…(I think I’m mature)” man, Nasir wanted to share the spotlight and pay some dues during his hour-and-a-half headlining set. To educate the crowd in the origin of their favorite tracks and in his influences, Nas arranged for the band to play a few bars of raucous funk before Green Lantern let “Nas Is Like” loose, which proved a fitting buildup. The best use of this trick was when the ensemble played the chorus of Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight”. For one, this was the best use of Nas’ R&B singer, who he indicated to be a relative of the late Nat King Cole. The man of average dress and butter-smooth vocals shined during that brief moment in a way that was far more fitting than his overdone addition to “The World Is Yours” (though he did do a great job on “If I Ruled The World (Imagine That).” Most importantly, however, this served as the perfect tension-building intro to perhaps Nas’ most dynamic song, “One Mic”, which to features a prominent sample of the Phil Collins’ own classic. “One Mic”‘s exaggerated, sweeping peaks and valleys felt, somehow, grander, more chilling, more inspiring live, with a vast majority of the crowd not only rapping along, but shouting the words as if they’d written them themselves, as if they were the passwords to salvation–particularly “Pray God forgive me for one sin / matter fact maybe more than one”. Putting “One Mic” in the context of the Phil Collins’ chilling hit added unexpected reserves of power to the night’s most powerful song.
The night’s undisputed singular highlight accordingly celebrated Nas’ longevity and multifaceted artistry. Around the middle of the set, Green Lantern dropped “Stillmatic (The Intro)”– which is, aside from the demolition display “Ether”, Nas’ certified mid-career comeback moment–which Nas began to rap with a serious spike in energy. As soon as he reached the early pivotal bars, “They thought I’d make another Illmatic, but it’s always forward I’m movin’, / never backwards, stupid: here’s another classic,” Lantern cut the beat and dropped “Book of Rhymes”, to initial confusion and then elation from the audience. After running through a few bars of “Book of Rhymes”, Nas again paused and rapped, “Here’s another classic”, as Green Lantern dropped “Represent”, which Nas and Lantern only let run through the opening hook before, together, shouting “Here’s another classic” as the next gem from Nas’ catalog arrived–the increase in pace and decrease in running time of each classic was indicative of the excitement the team felt at the innovative medley they had composed. The crowd was more than a little excited themselves, with cheers growing louder and louder with each hit, unable to believe their ears as the magic trick extended to roughly ten songs before letting up. The moment was an ecstatic intersection of perfect DJ/rapper coordination–all the cuts and drops were flawless–and careful push and pull with audience expectation–no one knew when each track would end or begin, or really how they’d been swept into this blissful trip through the past. Nas’ vast well of classic, or, at the very least, widely-known, songs allowed for this, but it was his newly-realized bigger-picture, celebratory intellect that brought about its creation and lent the particular charisma that made it into a classic moment of its own.
Somehow, this unfathomably diverse, deep, energetic, devoted, successful, man still felt that he was, in one way or another, one of the people (a claim those in the audience would not likely debate). He clearly wanted to provide a good time for all in attendance, knowing what it meant for them to see him, going over his hour and a half set time and straining his voice to the point of audible cracking by just the middle of the set. During “The World Is Yours”, he poignantly asked, with a wide, wondrous smile, “Can you believe it?” as if Nas himself still could not believe his success, could not fully trust that the wild ride that brought him to Governor’s Ball Honda Stage had happened while he was awake. The man who once so iconically spat that he doesn’t sleep because “sleep is the cousin of death”, has come a long way from that paranoid, grim outlook, so much so that it’s strange to hear such a song and line right after the milder, middle-aged wisdoms of the current Nas of Life Is Good. Such a glimpse at Nas’ journey is empowering: as the crowd chanted “the world is yours” over and over, the sentiment of the song changed from that of a jaded hustler’s anthem to a gift, a mantra for anyone with lofty aspirations. The transformation was only possible because of Nas’ defiant earnestness. He accepts everything with open arms: the world is his.
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