When Nas wrote the rhymes for “Illmatic,” he probably didn’t think he’d end up here. He couldn’t know that it would become one of the most decorated albums in rap history, and 20 years later, he’d celebrate its legacy by performing it in full, backed by the National Symphony Orchestra.
Yet there he was Friday at the Kennedy Center, seemingly overwhelmed by that grand moment. Rappers aren’t supposed to make it this far, especially those from the Queensbridge projects in New York. “Twenty years ago, I was writing that rhyme in a small room in a small apartment,” Nas recalled after a rousing rendition of “N.Y. State of Mind.” “Teenagers’ minds [are] wild.”
Released in April 1994, “Illmatic” has achieved pantheon status for its poetic and cinematic depiction of inner-city blight. On the album, Nas used intricate lyrical patterns to describe his unsafe surroundings, an environment that proved risky for the young rapper, although it provided a great canvas for his narrative skills. With producers DJ Premier, Large Professor, Pete Rock and Q-Tip, Nas created a singularly evocative album. You didn’t have to be from New York to see the dilapidated buildings, cracked sidewalks and rusty basketball rims.
Friday night’s show wasn’t just a victory for Nas, it was a victory for his fans, too. It was a proud occasion for everyone who remembers the first time they heard Nas on “Live at the Barbeque” and watched his video “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” on BET’s “Rap City.” It was a noble gala for aging b-boys and younger listeners; nostalgia was thick within the concert hall. This was an achievement for one of rap’s good guys and the genre as a whole. And it was a fitting main event for the Kennedy Center’s One Mic: Hip-Hop Culture Worldwide festival, during which the arts institution celebrates the history and vitality of the genre. (The festival takes its name from the title of a Nas song; events and performances run through April 13. There was a second sold-out Nas show Saturday in the Concert Hall.)
Shortly after 8 p.m., NSO Pops conductor Steven Reineke skipped onto the stage to prepare the 100-member group. Then, surging strings announced the arrival of the evening’s star, and Nas coolly glided to the fore in dark glasses, a black tuxedo, black bow tie and white pocket square. The orchestra put sophisticated twists on “Life’s a B----,” “One Love” and “Represent,” which felt ironic given the music’s gritty nature, yet the sounds swelled beautifully throughout the spacious theater.
In addition to the “Illmatic” cuts, Nas peppered in hits from the rest of his catalog. At the beginning of the set, he unpacked a quick medley of tracks — “The Message,” “Street Dreams,” “If I Ruled The World” — from 1996’s “It Was Written,” his sophomore album.
On this night, the backing musicians were just as important as Nas. The fact that Nas was performing “Illmatic” with an orchestra was unique and momentous and even he looked amazed at times, sometimes briefly pausing to fully embrace and capture the moment. Other times, he was playful, as he grinned and gently jabbed at the air during “The World Is Yours.”
At one point, Nas — now 40 — stopped to recollect. Twenty years ago, “I felt like my words had to be harsh, but I’m a little more refined now,” he said in a reflective tone. “Don’t get it twisted. I’m still hood, though.”
The crowd felt some of that by show’s end. For the encore, the orchestra remained offstage, leaving Nas with his DJ, bassist, keyboardist and drummer. Nas undid the bow tie and shifted the energy to a straight-up rap gig. The fans, who had been seated for much of the performance, stood up and danced; many abandoned their assigned seats for spots closer to the stage. Hands waved frantically as “Made You Look” roared from the speakers. A breakdancer whirled hypnotically in an aisle. All of this for “Illmatic.” All in the spirit of hip-hop.
Moore is a freelance writer.