If there is such a thing as hip-hop royalty, two of the greatest living examples are Nas and Miss Lauryn Hill. Since the early 1990s, both artists have enjoyed reigns of nearly-uninterrupted supremacy as leaders and tastemakers in the hip-hop scene. On Wednesday night, the 11th of October 2017, I was lucky enough to congregate with a few thousand other hip-hop disciples and bask in the warm, comforting glow of the two aforementioned legends for a several hour stretch. This was the final stop on the Powernomics Tour and I was grateful to be able to be amongst the many at Pacific Coliseum to witness it.
I had seen Nas play a show before – almost two years ago, on the Illmatic Anniversary Tour – but I was excited to see what he would do with a bigger venue, a bigger stage, and, perhaps, more live musical support. My desire was instantly met, to some, degree, as Nas was joined on-stage by drummer/singer/musical director Eddie Cole. Cole provided crisp, live drumming as Nas spat the smooth, streaming flow of “Get Down” – which, famously, samples “Funky Drummer” and “The Boss” by James Brown – and belted out the chorus of “Nas Is Like”. It added a nice, fresh element to Nas’ set. Nas mostly stuck to his early work, with approximately half of the songs he played in his first set (spoiler alert!) first appearing on his debut album, “Illmatic”. Amongst his most famous tracks, Nas sprinkled in a little freestyle interlude which concluded with the rhyme, “Always knew I’d move forward, never backward, but here’s a known classic,” and led immediately into a partial rendition of “Memory Lane”.
A pet peeve of mine in hip-hop is rappers who cannot effectively deliver their lines during live performances. While Nas dropped several words from his lines, he did it in a clever way that still saw him completing every line without relying on a dub track. Instead of dropping words at the end of his lines, Nas dropped words from the middle, pausing to breathe and re-working the rhythm of the words that were left in a new and relatively smooth way. I was glad to see Nas adapt his lyrics in a way that retained all the meaning and most of the flow. Very few rappers are able to do that. Were this to be my first listen, I wouldn’t have even noticed most of the dropped lines; Nas still found a way to make the lyrics make sense and retain the poetic brush that is his trademark.
Nas finished his first set, about 30 minutes after taking the stage, with the always-impactful “One Mic”, playing the song in its entirety. It was the highlight of his set and it almost seemed like he was saving his breath for the final hurrah.
And then, we waited. For about an hour. I spent a bit more on beer than I’d budgeted for but the damage was minimal. Any feelings of tedium dissipated the second Miss Hill’s foot touched the Pacific Coliseum stage and I, for one, was thrilled to see her joined by a saxman, axeman, bassist, marimbist, trumpeter, keyboardist, three singers singing, two drummers drumming, one bobbing hype-man and a DJ mixing everything. I had expected a lot from this show but Miss Lauryn Hill blew my expectations high-and-dry out of the water. Her vocal abilities were as strong and full of scales as the back of an armadillo. Miss Hill started with renditions of six songs off of her debut solo album, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”, and her support crew came through with brilliant backing vocals and instrumentation. “Final Hours”, especially, took on new life with a powerful, wailing guitar solo. Hill then moved onto several Fugees tracks, including “How Many Mics,” and “Ready or Not”, on which she rapped Wyclef’s verse as well as her own. Her rapping ability was just as crisp as her singing ability and her dictation was refreshingly clear. Hill finished her 1st set with “Killing Me Softly” and left the stage.
Nas came out for his second set shortly thereafter and, this time, much of Miss Hill’s band stuck around to help him out. With a greater level of production support behind him, Nas was able to play orchestral versions of his songs, sending up a few classics off of “Illmatic” and “It Was Written” before moving to other areas of his discography and culminating with one of Nas’s hypest songs ever – “Made You Look”. At that point, Nas vacated the stage and Miss Hill took his place. Miss Hill started the final part of her set with a passionate version of “Mystery of Iniquity” (which, for those who don’t know, was the inspiration for Kanye West’s “All Falls Down”), and then continued to play hits off of “Miseducation”.
Since it has been so long since she’s released music, Miss Hill said, she often tends to change around aspects of a song – the lyrics, the instrumentation, the arrangement – to better reflect where she is at, at a certain time. With that being the case, however, she also acknowledged that sometimes fans just want to hear the original thing. Miss Hill played through Ex-Factor – one of my favorite songs – in its entirety. And the best part? She’d already played a short cut of Ex-Factor in the first part of her set. If you’re going to give me two distinct versions of one of your best songs in one night, I’m not going to complain.
Miss Hill played well past 11:00 pm, and the house lights came on when she was about one-third of the way through “Doo-Wop”. The fans wanted more and we could tell that Lauryn wanted to stay but, alas, the show could not go on.
All in all, this was probably the best hip-hop double billing that I’ve ever witnessed. I have two small, small gripes, however. One – although I loved seeing each artist perform two sets, I wish it could have been set up in a way where I could have seen an opener without arriving 4 hours before the concerts end. Having Nas perform for 30 minutes before taking a 1 hour break was, perhaps, not the best time management. Two – Nas and Miss Hill, surprisingly, didn’t play a single song together. Given their success working together on a record, I expected to see, at the very least, a chorus + verse from “If I Ruled The World”. It didn’t happen and, while I had too good of a time to claim disappointment, the omission was certainly surprising.
I can’t complain, though. I saw two of the greats, both of whom are clearly still on top of their game, perform nearly 40 songs over 2 hours. For a hip-hop head like myself, there aren’t many better ways for a fella to spend his Wednesday evening.
Nas – Pt 1 Get Down Know I Can Represent Life Is What You Make It Oochie Wallie (Chorus) Nas Is Like (Ft. Eddie Cole) You Owe Me Freestyle Memory Lane Michael Jackson Tribute Ain’t Hard To Tell One Mic
Lauryn Hill – Pt 1 Everything Is Everything Superstar Ex-factor (Pt. 1) When It Hurts So Bad Final Hour Lost Ones How Many Mics Fu-gee-la Vancouver, Are You Ready? (Interlude) Ready Or Not Ready, Ready (Outro) Killing Me Softly
Nas – Pt 2 Ain’t Hard To Tell New York State Of Mind The World Is Yours The Message Street Dreams Hate Me Now Made U Look
Lauryn Hill – Pt 2 Mystery Of Iniquity I Gotta Find Peace Of Mind To Zion Ex-factor (Pt. 2 – Original Version) Love (We Do It For) Doo-wop