Live Review: Nas performing Illmatic at James Cabaret, Wellington

Nas Wellington James Cabaret Illmatic Poster


James Cabaret

Sunday 18 January 2015

Last time Nas played in New Zealand he was touring with Damian Marley promoting their collaborative album Distant Relatives. The time before that he opened for Kanye West.

Nasty Nas, widely considered one of the greatest emcees ever, opening for Kanye? Why wasn’t he headlining? I’d suggest it’s because Kanye gets radio play, and Nas doesn’t.

But fans at the Nas show last night knew better and turned out in force to witness the rap legend in the flesh. Nas may not get the mainstream radio play that Kanye does, but he has still more than earned a loyal following. And two sold out shows was enough to prove it.

And the fans were richly rewarded. Not only did they get to see one of their favourite rappers, but they got to see him perform his most acclaimed album. As advertised, Nas played his groundbreaking début album Illmatic from start to finish, to celebrate its 20th anniversary. DJ Green Lantern oversaw the music and provided backing vocals, while Nas tore through the hit-heavy set.

The setup was fairly unimposing. Nas wore a plain camo green tshirt, a discreet necklace and sunglasses. There was a screen at the back of the stage with videos. But the emphasis wasn’t on showy gimmicks, it was on the music.

The songs from Illmatic were firmly imprinted in the minds of everyone in the audience, most of whom were singing along. They best sing along moment was during “NY York State Of Mind” when everyone shouted “I never sleep, because sleep is the cousin of death!” The crowd had showed up to relive that enduring album, and Nas delivered exactly what they wanted, playing it all, followed by more songs from later in his career.

The set was a trip down nostalgia lane. The Illmatic singles all featured, like “The World Is Yours”, “One Love” and “Halftime”. There was a shout out to the late Michael Jackson for allowing his music to be sampled on “It Ain’t Hard To Tell”, as well several other late rappers on “Represent”

The second half of the set was less exciting. Nas gave an impressive cross-section of his career through the ages, but Illmatic was the attraction that had set the benchmark.

Nas clearly loved what he was doing. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I’ll keep doing it for 20 more, because you guys keep coming back!” he shouted. “I need to keep coming back here more often.”

A number of fans had brought their LP copies of Illmatic to the show and were waving them in the air. “You want me to sign that?” Nas asked, “Help me out and take the plastic off. You got a pen?” After 20 years of touring he still appeared stunned at his fans devotion “A real vinyl record!” he muttered in disbelief as he scrawled his signature on the cover.

My only complaint was that it was extremely hot in the venue. There was no noticeable air conditioning. I was wanting the show to finish half way through the set, just so I could escape the humidity. A sold out gig and a small venue means lots of body heat if going to get generated. Nas himself kept complaining about the heat too, asking the lighting technicians to turn down the onstage lights several times.

No pass outs and no ventilation means no escape from the heat. I wonder if this is a deliberate method of selling more drinks? Apparently it was too hot and crowded at the Run The Jewels/Joey Badass gig the previous week as well, and the gig had been advertised to start far earlier than it actually did, meaning people had been trapped inside with the heat for even longer. If this continues I’ll consider avoiding shows at James Cabaret in the future.

Joseph James.