NEW YORK — Lyrically,
Last year when Esco announced that he would be following up his album Untitled with a duet LP with a star outside of genre, Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley, some of his fans didn't know what to think. But if there is anyone who could actually pull it off, it's Nas. Certainly there would be way more public pushback if, say, a Jay-Z, Eminem, T.I. or Young Jeezy would have set out on such an audacious musical venture. But with Nas, you know his spirit is free, and even in his mid-30s, the timeless mic king is almost as rebellious as when he was a 20-year-old kid fresh out of the Queensbridge projects.
Last night, Nas and Jr. Gong touched down at New York's Highline Ballroom for the second show of their Distant Relatives tour (the trek started last weekend in Chicago). The messages in the music steer clear of materialistic jargon and partying — the duo pushed thought provocation on worldwide subjects. Nas brought one of the great DJs in hip-hop, the Evil Genius Green Lantern. Marley came with his band, including backup singers, as well as a flag bearer who proudly and tirelessly waved the colors of Jamaica throughout the show.
"What happened to us?" Nas rapped with force on "Tribes at War," performed at the top of their set. "Geographically they moved us, from Africa/ We was once happiness pursuers/ Now we backstabbin'/ Combative and abusive/ African and Arab go at it, they most Muslim/ We should be movin' in unison."
"Ancient People" came next, with Nas checking his BlackBerry while on the mic. Either he had an urgent text message or he couldn't remember his lines, but nevertheless, Esco kept going.
"Nah Mean" followed, with the Distant Relatives duo asking President Obama what he could do for them. From there, it was vintage Nas. The supreme MC went into some vintage material, including "Nas Is Like," "Represent" and "Hip-Hop Is Dead."
"I hate the radio!" Nas yelled on the latter. "F--- the radio."
Nas shouted out the Jamaican forefather of hip-hop, Kool Herc, and at the end of "If I Ruled the World" gave love to Gang Starr MC Guru, who died last month. "My man Guru, he walks," Nas said as his background singers sang, "we'll walk right up to the sun. Hand in hand."
"This one's about leaders," Marley sang, from one of the album's highlights, "Leaders." "Let's all change the world."
"The odds stacked against him/ He fights back Mac and Benzes/ Never puts cash or ass before a friendship/ He laughs last/ As some die young, he is still existing/ Somehow he got around the pitfalls of the system/ When he walks, we watch/ When we talks, we listen/ Leaders."