For his 11th studio album, lyrical juggernaut Nasir Jones teamed up with the enigmatic Lauryn Hill for the “Life is Good/Black Rage” tour. Together, they descended upon Chicago’s Congress Theater, and with them a drove of 80s babies followed. An encapsulation of 90s golden era hip-hop – something that DJ Green Lantern thoroughly embraced from beginning to end – like true minstrels Nas and Lauryn Hill properly represented the lyrical cadences of their time, a nostalgic throwback with no hallucinatory trends tainting artistic perfection.
Nas warmed the crowd with a snapshot of his most recent work, Life is Good. It certainly had its chance to shine, opening with “The Don,” but it was his classics that riled fans. When the beat to “It Ain’t hard to Tell” came in the crowd lost it, sending a ripple of energy throughout the Congress.
Everything was intact for Nas; his stage presence was demanding, the wordplay was efficient, and his breathe control tight. Green Lantern extended the sample source (Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature“) and it was a bit surreal hearing MJ’s voice sing “Why, why, tell ‘em that it’s human nature” and then Nas, along with a packed house, continue with:
This rhythmic explosion, is what your frame of mind has chosen
I’ll leave your brain stimulated, niggaz is frozen
Speak with criminal slang, begin like a violin
End like leviathan, it’s deep well let me try again
Aside from “It Ain’t hard to Tell” Nas kept his set tight, not deviating much from previous performances, which is standard procedure for lyricists of his ilk. Consistency is his biggest asset and he isn’t about to change now. Though there was an unfortunate twist, for “If I Ruled the World” it was assumed that Lauryn Hill would join him on stage. To the disappointment of many she didn’t. Instead it was R&B singer Eddie Cole, who did better than expected, considering the circumstances. His voice carried well, and without deviating too far from the original, added his own interpretation to the classic hook:
We’ll walk right up to the sun
Hand in hand
We’ll walk right up to the sun
We won’t land
Hill’s absence during Nas’ set was gaping. She was scheduled to go on right after, but it took nearly an hour for her to come out. People began to boo and hiss. And by the time she made it on, the crowd was noticeably drained – a wave of fans having already left. Her erratic behavior didn’t help, as she insisted on directing the band James Brown style, and in doing so ignored the subtle nuances of her magnificent voice, a disappointing turn for those looking for the old Lauryn Hill.
She opened with a reggae-themed version of “Killing Me Softly,” which was notable in that it was a new rendition, and had a modern bounce to it, but that’s a song that should be marinated slowly not microwaved. Following it with an eight-minute rendition of “Everything is Everything,” four minutes in the excitement of seeing Hill had dwindled. People began to slowly file out, and her performance fell flat. She abandoned lyrical clarity for a larger soundscape.
Stellar lyrical content, however, was there for both, and it always will be. If Nas and Lauryn Hill weren’t musicians they’d still be writers in some shape, form or fashion. Hill was inconsistent while Nas was solid as a rock, an MC much like a good book – you can go back to over and over again. The resurgence of Nas in particular is palpable and although his sound is consistently the same, it lends itself to the notion that there’s no need to alter something that was already flawless from the jump.