“Thank you for being here with us tonight,” Nasir Jones tells a packed-in crowd at Leeds’s O2 Academy. “It’s a pleasure to be with you.”
The Queensbridge veteran certainly shares in the vociferous passion hoarsely screamed back; the man they call Nas remains a perennial crowdpleaser. Stopping off in Yorkshire as part of a short tour post-Wireless Festival, he may lack the commercial clout he once had at his peak – but in its place remains an indelible reputation as the godfather and kingpin of East Coast hip-hop.
Backed by a DJ and drummer, Jones frontloads his set with a sizeable chunk of game-changing first record Illmatic. After the grooving staccato of opener Get Down, most of the album is trotted out in semi-sequence to elated screams. It has aged well too; N.Y. State of Mind, with its brooding bassline, remains as forebodingly intense as it did on release, whilst Life’s a B****’s crisp buoyant jazz is still insidiously pretty. Other tracks make fleeting appearances, such as The Message’s Sting-sampling, flamenco-guitar jam, but Nas never seems too far away from a debut cut to incite a degree of pandemonium throughout.
Away from Illmatic though, Jones falls prey on occasion to the modern hip-hop trade of snippeting nuggets from hits, with songs like Street Dreams and I Can briefly visited and swiftly discarded. But he comfortably compensates with enough full-length renditions to offset any regularity of practice, with high-energy renditions of If I Ruled The World (Imagine That) and Hate Me Now both highlighting his rhythmic prowess. There is little scabrous about his diction onstage either – his delivery over the trumpet-soaked bounce of debut single Halftime is as crisp and succinct as it was on release 25 years ago too.
Tributes to fallen heroes are turned out too; It Ain’t Hard to Tell interposes Michael Jackson’s Human Nature as a preface, whilst a gritty Shook Ones (Part II) by Mobb Deep honours the late Prodigy. When an image of Amy Winehouse appears on the rear screen during posthumous collaboration Cherry Wine, a spontaneous minute’s applause rings out. From there, Jones wraps up briskly, concluding with the reflective confessional of Stay. “Peace, salute!” he shouts, as explosion sound effects signal his departure from the stage.
Few, it seem, can do it like Nas; nearly three decades in, his showmanship ensures that his legacy will remain a hip-hop touchstone for generations to come.