|« A Time to be Thankful... for Music||Preview: JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound @ Metro 11/21 »|
Review Fri Nov 16 2012
When word came down through the grapevine that Nas and Lauryn Hill would be playing at the Congress Theater together it prompted two obvious questions from anyone interested in attending: Would they be performing their famous collaboration "If I Ruled the World" together? And how late would Ms. Hill be to take the stage?
The first answer came early in the night. Three songs into Nas' eighty minute set, the opening croons of "If I Ruled..." wafted through the speakers but they weren't being sung by Lauryn. Instead Nas' backup vocalist of choice (whom he later revealed to be a descendant of Nat King Cole) took over the song's chorus. While 9:15pm was an extremely unreasonable time to expect the notoriously erratic and infamously tardy Hill to take the stage -- let alone for a single song -- there was still a visible slump in the collective shoulders of the packed crowd when it became clear that the beloved hit would be performed without its original singer.
Despite the fact that this was the first of many ill-fated decisions from Lauryn, Nas couldn't have been more "on" in his performance. He blazed through his set, delivering each line, each syllable of each word with perfect articulation and fervor.
The fact that the New York native's debut album is nearly twenty years old is hard to believe. The weight and influence that it continues to carry in the genre is even more impressive. Standing before a video montage of his hometown, the rapper kicked off his set with one of the album's most popular tracks "N. Y. State of Mind." He continued to pepper Illmatic's fan favorites into his set throughout the night including "Life's a Bitch" and "The World Is Yours."
Fast forward eighteen years to Nas' newest album Life Is Good -- his best in recent years, in this writer's opinion -- and the songs sounded even better in a live setting. Woe-filled post-divorce smashes like "Bye Baby" and "Cherry Wine" (dedicated to the late Amy Winehouse who supplied backing vocals for the album recording) seemed less depressing given the seeming mentality that Nas has adapted after the album's title. His charisma was perhaps the most endearing part of his set.
The only thing, if any, that made Nas more likable in person was a noticeable departure from the foul language his, and pretty much any other rapper in the world's, songs are laden with. The fact that the vast majority of these words were dropped from Wednesday's set list or replaced with less polarizing language wasn't necessarily what brought about this likable quality though. Swearing in songs is no big thing. Four letter words don't rub me the wrong way. It was the realization that the messages within Nas' lyrics were still just as powerful, raw and universal without leaning on attention-grabbing lingual exploits.
In short, this was as close to a perfect set as can be imagined.
That's what made the second half of the evening so disappointing. Following a chilling closing rendition of "One Mic," Nas departed from the Congress' stage. Fifty minutes and a complete set overhaul later one of Lauryn's band members announced they were experiencing "technical difficulties" and were being delayed -- likely an excuse of take the heat off Hill. If you're not familiar with the undeniably talented artist, she has a tendency to take hours before deciding to come out on stage. So then began an awkward 15-minute DJ mix of Kanye West songs followed by a 5-7 minute jam session from the band. Needless to say it was midnight when Lauryn Hill finally appeared.
She seemed to have two goals Wednesday night: burning through her set as fast as possible and cleaning house. She achieved both. Her songs were either sped up or drawn out to the point of being unrecognizable, spurring a nonstop stream of attendees headed for the back door of the venue. "Everything is Everything," a song that's recorded version clocks in at just under 5 minutes, was stretched to be annoyingly lengthy and overly dramatic.
By the time the singer introduced a new song, "Black Rage," late into her set I felt like I was living inside every musician's worst nightmare. Lauryn had abandoned any and all use of time signatures and even tempos at this point. The drummer struggled to create a beat. The keyboardist seemed completely uncertain of when to play. The backup singers attempted to find some sort of synchronized choreography, one clapping on the eighth beats, another on the quarters.
Sadly, the most amusing part of this trainwreck was the fact that Lauryn was attempting to lead the band in an almost militant manner. The truth of the matter was though they would have likely been better off without her interference. Hill herself sounded on key but her vocals were watered down with so many delay and reverb effects it was rare that a a lyric was easily distinguished.
It was a sad end to an evening that had much promise. With Nas' appearance though, the night was in no way a total wash, not even close. If nothing else the second portion of the concert was a stark contrast and an unfortunate reminder that some artists, even the most talented, don't have the longevity of others. Others, like Nas, will continue to prosper and remain relevant long after their allotted shelf life.