Nas Brings A-Game, Sets Battles (Mostly) Aside In Philly

Declaring solidarity with old-school, MC makes minor jabs at Jay-Z.

For artists, there’s nothing more important than having fans’ ears attentive on what they have to say. Right now, Nas is taking full advantage of the ears focused on him. He speaks against injustice, and on his Stillmatic tour, the messages he’s been spreading are to follow your dreams, to unite with your brother, and to understand the importance of representing “hip-hop in its purest form.”

“Once I hit the stage, I just feel it on another level where I know a lot of artists can’t even see me on,” he said Wednesday night in Poughkeepsie, New York, weary from just leaving the stage at the Mid-Hudson Civic Center. Nas is most proud not only that he has the focus of the ears, but that he’s also still a viable part of hip-hop almost a decade after he dropped his debut LP, Illmatic. (Click here for photos from the Poughkeepsie show.)

“When I realize how long I’ve been in the game and I realize my lasting power when I’m onstage, when I’m singing records that were out rocking before a lot of dudes even got in the game, it’s definitely opened me up to performing more.”

But not that night. It was just past 10 p.m., and Nas was exhausted after performing for an hour. All he wanted to do was hit the hotel and watch TV.

“Man, I’ll tell you what, if it was like last night and I had to perform two shows, I don’t think I could make it,” he said to his manager before leaving the venue.

Three days later at Philadelphia’s Electric Factory, Nas was like a new person, energized and amped right before the 10 p.m. start time. He knew he was going to have his A-game. Philly’s a tough crowd to perform for as it is, and they don’t take kindly to attacks on their own. In addition to going at Jay-Z and members of the Roc-A-Fella camp — the Roc’s Beanie Sigel-led State Property group are all from Philadelphia — Nas has also had words for hometown heroes the Roots in the past few weeks.

On this Saturday night, however, the Philly crowd was oblivious to any battles, at least for most of the show. They wanted only to hear revelations from rap’s onetime self-proclaimed prophet, Nastradamus.

The first lesson: Prepare for war. “Yo, I’m livin’ in this time behind enemy lines,” he started rhyming on the show’s opener, “Got Ur Self A … ”

After telling everyone how soft Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit were on the song, he took a break to prepare the audience. “We going back to hip-hop tonight, y’all,” he said. “I’m a old-school n—a. This is what it’s about, two turntables and a mic.”

From Stillmatic to Illmatic he went with the next cut, “Represent.” Before the show, Nas said that he’s shocked by the reception it gets. “It brings people from the old album to the new, right there live onstage. When I see people with it, I’m like, ‘wow.’ ”

From there it was a medley of consisting of a verse a piece from “One Love,” which he dedicated to imprisoned rapper Shyne, “The World Is Yours” and “Street Dreams.” “If I Ruled the World” followed, with the female spectators filling in for the song’s guest star, Lauryn Hill. “If I ruled the world/ I’d free all my sons/ I love ‘em, love ‘em/ Love ‘em, baby … ”

The love turned to aversion with a furious rendition of “Hate Me Now,” which went out to all the haters. The party songs “You Owe Me” and “Oochie Wally” put the ladies back in call-and-response mode as they sang and danced, but things came to a screeching halt as the DJ cued up the “wrong” song after “Smokin’.”

“It’s the hard knock life for us/ It’s the hard knock life for us,” a young girl’s voice sang, garnering chuckles from the crowd. “What the f— is that?” Nas asked his crew, the Bravehearts, who were onstage with him. “This is real hip-hop in here tonight,” he exclaimed before the opening sample from “Ether” came on.

“F— Jay-Z,” went the sinister looped voice, sending the crowd into a frenzy.

As the crowd helped Nas out on the chorus, screaming, “I Will. Not. Lose,” the audience bobbed their heads waved their arms to every syllable, chopping down like axes.

Nas was so caught up in the song, he didn’t even notice that he began rapping his words from the second verse at what was supposed to be the start of the third verse. After a pause, he finished a cappella, with everyone chanting in unison: “R-O-C get gunned up and clapped quick/ J.J. Evans get gunned up and clapped quick/ Your whole damn record label gunned up and clapped quick/ Shawn Carter to Jay-Z, damn you on Jaz di–.”

“We did the battle thing, but it’s not about fighting with my brother,” Nas told the crowd before his finale. “I would never try to kill my own brother. … The mic is my weapon, not a gun.”

This set up his current single, “One Mic.” With the stage totally dark, a spotlight shined on Nas as he began rapping on his knees, as if he was praying. As the tempo of the song picked up, he gradually rose to his feet before pumping his fist and screaming, almost like the rebels in the video.

“I really just started putting a lot of emotions into my records recently,” Nas said, “like with my last, maybe, three albums on different songs. ‘One Mic,’ that’s dealing with what’s in my soul and what’s hurting and how I’m just a survivor. All I need is one mic.

“It just starts off slow,” he said of his performance, “and then I just can’t take it and I break fool, so what happens is onstage; the audience goes through that whole experience with me.

“[When] I perform ‘One Mic,’ the only thing that I’m concerned with is not falling off the stage,” he added. “Every chance I get, I try to look and see if I’m too close to the edge, ’cause I can’t see nothing else. I’m enjoying the song so much — I hope people can enjoy it with me. I hope that I’m not alone in this, and then sometimes I open my eyes and I see people with it, and that’s cool. That’s a good feeling.”

For a feature interview with Nas, check out “Nas: Stillmatters.” For a feature detailing the Nas/Jay-Z lyric battles, check out “Nas Vs. Jay-Z: Grade-A Beef.”

Read about all of the shows we’ve recently covered in Tour Reports.