Nas' no-frills delivery counters rap's reputation

The Baltimore Sun

Nas is fed up with those who have helped turn hip-hop into a billion-dollar minstrel show. In fact, he's so incensed by the genre's ailing artistic state that he titled his latest album Hip Hop is Dead.

As one of the more respected and visible rap veterans out there, the native New Yorker and husband of pop-R&B; chameleon Kelis seemingly feels that it's his responsibility to "carry on tradition." And that mandate is the title of one of the better cuts on the album.

During his sold-out show at Rams Head Live on Tuesday night, Nas told the house of mostly die-hard fans that the show was a "funeral service." This theme was buttressed by the clever look of the DJ booth: The turntables were fitted in a small black casket adorned with dark wreaths and a fake blackbird perched on its open lid.

But that was the extent of theatricality. Here's what you must know before going to a Nas show: He is not really a "performer." Unlike some of his more charismatic pop-friendly peers (LL Cool J comes to mind), Nas has very little, if any, stage presence. He is a hip-hop artiste known for his imaginative, storytelling skills. On stage, Nas mostly stands there, rocking his shoulders a little, as he coolly delivers his rhymes. And that's exactly what he did for nearly two hours Tuesday night.

Decked out in the requisite hip-hop gear -- baggy jeans, Timberland boots, a long T-shirt, chunky jewelry and dark shades -- Nas opened the show with "Money Over [expletive]," the first cut on the new album. His feelings about the direction of today's hip-hop are, more or less, summed up in the song's title. The rapper rushed through other cuts from Hip Hop is Dead, namely "Carry on Tradition" and the ominous-sounding title track, before breezing through a long (long!) medley of his greatest hits.

He rightfully concentrated on prime cuts from his classic 1994 debut, Illmatic, including "N.Y. State of Mind" (which was changed to "B-more State of Mind" on Tuesday night) and "Represent." He also included his more commercial singles, the best being 1996's "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)," featuring Lauryn Hill. (The house sang her lines.) Nas must have felt obligated to toss in "Oochie Wally," his unfortunate 2000 foray into club-friendly hip-hop. But he redeemed himself with a passionate take of 2002's introspective "One Mic."

As the rapper performed mostly truncated versions of his hits, it became clear that the best way to experience Nas' gritty, imagery-rich music is to listen to an album. (Be sure to start with Illmatic and check out 2002's well-received God's Son.)

He is one of few hip-hop artists whose albums generally require repeated listens to absorb. And, at times, his music can be rewarding. But you wouldn't necessarily get that watching him stand on stage, ambivalently carrying on tradition.

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