Tonight will linger longer than most.
Tonight, Nas equalised. Ever since Jay Z unexpectedly brought the fight for local rap supremacy to his New York rival last year on ‘Takeover’, Nas has been on the back foot. Fact is, few thought Nas was up to the battle with Jay Z. He hasn’t made a record that ranks with any of Jay‘s since his classic ‘Illmatic’ in ’94, after all. Ever since then he’s been chasing that one glory with diminishing returns, and when Jay launched his hilarious attack on Nas it seemed likely to finish Nas off.
In fact the opposite occurred, as Jay Z recently acknowledged. The challenge was just what wee Nas needed. His nerve was back up on last year’s ‘Stillmatic’ album, but the fight really made his recent ‘God’s Son’ – Nas‘ first truly great album since ‘Illmatic’. And so he makes his first trip back to England since ’95 in rude form. By quirk of design or luck, tonight comes but a month after Jay‘s Wembley show and nobody present at both could deny Nasir Jones’ live victory over his adversary. A mini-riot blighted Nas‘ Forum shown on Saturday and so tonight’s NME show kicks off at the ungodly hour of eight, but Nas still hits the ground running at a ferocious pace.
Stomping onstage in a t-shirt proclaiming ‘I Am The American Dream’, Nas launches into the anthemic ‘Got Urself…’ with a frantic fervour that only lets up midway through the show when he climbs onto the lip of the stage to sing his imagined duet with the late 2Pac, ‘Thugz Mansion’, serenaded by a venue lit up with lighters. It is a moment of sweet poignancy in a set that cranks up the intensity with each passing song.
“There’s only one nigga in the whole world I really, really hate”, declares Nas midway through, causing everyone to hold their breath, but he’s teasing. “Nah, not that street rap bullshit – I’m talking about George Bush. Everyone say fuck George Bush!”
Jay Z doesn’t escape though, receiving a thorough mauling on ‘Ether’, even if the “fuck Jay Z” call-and-response routine gets a rather muted response from an audience who no doubt are fans of both. The “bravehearts, bravehearts” chant that rolls down from the very top of the venue back to the stage and ignites a magnificent ‘Made You Look’ gets a rather better return. It’s preceded by an old school body popping duel between Nas and an acrobatic, head-spinning nipper in a New York track-suit: Nas loses but wins points on cuteness. Then, as the ‘Made You Look’ beat sweeps forcefully in, the only two stationary bodies in the venue belong to the two suited heavies onstage to protect Nas and his accomplice MCs from god-knows-what. Rarely can the Astoria have exploded in such harmony. It is some sight.
“Get your Nas t-shirts, your Nas key-rings for five dollars”, advises the DJ as the venue empties into Tottenham Court Road at a disorientating 9:00pm, proving it’s never too early, nor too late for one last hustle in hip hop. Little matter that it should be over so early. Tonight will linger longer than most.