NEW YORK — Nas in New York equals special. That's the belief of every fan of Nasir Jones who has been faithfully riding with him since he was a 16-year-old MC rhyming about getting into a physical confrontation with the original God's son, Jesus.
Nas doesn't perform in his hometown that often. The most memorable show he did here in recent years was in summer 2004 in Central Park. At the free park jam, he tore off the proverbial roof — well, not really; it was outdoors, after all — brought out Mobb Deep, demeaned the G-Unit and the Diplomats, and performed selections from his coveted catalog.
On Wednesday night, Nas played his second rare show at a major venue in NYC in recent weeks. He performed at the Hammerstein Ballroom, which is smaller than the venue he played several weeks ago, the Roseland Ballroom.
"I'm hyped right now," the usually laid-back MC told MTV News backstage approximately an hour before showtime. He was itching to get onstage, especially since he was trying a couple of new additions to his show: a small live band, and legendary producer Marley Marl backing him as the show DJ.
"We've been practicing out in California," Marley — showing no sign of having suffered a heart attack earlier this year — said as he waited to get behind the ones and twos.
As showtime grew closer, Nas revealed he wanted to do a very short run of venues across the country — he's performing New Year's Eve in L.A. — because he did not put out an album this year as promised. He didn't want to leave his fans with nothing.
As the show started, Marley Marl cued up the classic record he made with MC Shan, "The Bridge." Nas walked out wearing shades, a white T-shirt with a peace sign on his back, a gold rope chain and a New York Mets hat that he quickly threw into the crowd. Marl and the band also all wore white tops and Mets hats.
"While all the New York top dogs is on vacation, Nas in here with y'all mutha----as," the star of the show said to the teeming masses. It was so packed, it looked like some people would have to hang off the balcony. Hammerstein was bursting at the seams.
But Nas in New York doesn't just equal special — it also equals classic. Or classics. The rhyme kind has so many records in his lyrical stash house — whether they be actual singles, obscure tracks or ones that weren't even officially released — that he can build an entire concert playlist based strictly on songs he knows will get those unanimous "whoa" and "whoo" reactions from the crowd.
Nas started with "N.Y. State of Mind," which drew plenty of "whoa" reactions and got everyone moving, and followed it with the equally strong but even more energetic "Represent." When a Nas song is being performed, spectators just don't rap along, they actually perform along: standing on their feet, throwing hand gestures and facial expressions. With Nas, it's serious.
"Oh my God, the greatest city in the whole world," Nas yelled, pleased with his reception. "Marley, gimme some of that sh-- from back then."
Marl oblige by playing "It Ain't Hard to Tell."
"We shuttin' this sh-- down," Nas said. "Marley Marl, I got so many songs in there, you pick any song, and we gonna go through it."
With that, Marl played the beat for "Life's a Bitch."
Nas started to look around, as if he were expecting the track's co-star, AZ, to come out. But sigh, there was no sign of his Brooklyn teammate from the Firm. Marl then played another record they had together, "Phone Tap," but alas, still no A. The crowd rapped his part instead.
"Where's AZ at?" Nas yelled, with a look of disappointment on his face.
"Where's AZ?" Nas continued. "Foxy's in jail. Life changes, don't it ... I love them, wish they were here."
During "One Love," Nas had to go it alone as well, as Q-Tip was absent. "Where's my n---a Q at?" He asked. Oh well.
Chrisette Michele did come out, for "Can't Forget About You," but unfortunately, Marl and Nas began losing some of their continuity, with the DJ either miscuing some songs or pulling up songs Nas wasn't prepared to perform or had no interest in playing.
"I want the original," Nas told Marl as he played the beat for the remix of "One Mic." "I want the original. You ain't got it? F---! Damn!"
After an explosive recovery with "Got Ur Self a Gun," Nas asked his DJ to take him to the gutter.
"I wanna do some grimy sh--," he said. "It can be from '91, '92, '94. It don't matter."
Would it be "Ether" (with the "F--- Jay-Z" bleeped out, of course)? "Shootouts"? "Black Republican"? To everyone's surprise, especially Nas', Marley threw on "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)."
"That ain't grimy, but f--- it," Nas said.
The Hammerstein crowd didn't seemed to be bothered — they sang Lauryn Hill's famous hook.
"Black, white, they look at us all as n---as, compared to them evil mutha----as," Nas said toward the end of the song. "Ten years from now, color won't matter."
The Bravehearts — even the estranged big man of the crew, Horse — came out for a performance of their song "Oochie Wally."
Another guest was announced, Busta Rhymes, but his music for "Touch It" came on a little late, making his entrance less than smooth.
"Any n---a that don't think Nas is the best, you could die a thousand deaths," he declared. "Nas is the best. The best MC, period. One of the greatest ever to exist, period. Salute the god. I wanna go to '97 real quick. Can I do it?"
But Marley once again struggled with the music. Instead of playing a classic Rhymes record, he put on an album interlude, forcing Bus and Nas to stall for time. Just when some fans were about to get testy, "New York Sh--" came on, and people went crazy.
Afterward, Busta finally did get a chance to go back to 1997, with "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See."
"I'mma keep it real, a lot of n---as talk that 'King of New York' sh--" Busta said before he left.
"That's the king right there," he continued, pointing to Nas, who closed out the show with another classic, "Made You Look."