Concert Review: Nas shines while Lauryn Hill falters in Boston

Nas is like 39, but he looks 21. Whatever.

Nas and Lauryn Hill are hip hop legends with classic catalogues and die-hard fan bases that span from hippies to hipsters, speaking to the pair’s appeal far beyond traditional rap circles.

But Sunday night at the sold-out House of Blues, that’s where the similarities ended. On their co-headlining Life Is Good/Black Rage tour, the two artists staged radically different shows that left fans sweaty and out of breath on one hand, dazed and confused on the other.

Pushing 40 but looking 21, Nas kept the focus on important details and eliminated typical rap distractions like hype men, backup dancers, blinding jewelry and random dudes hanging out onstage. He wore all-black with a single gold wallet chain and — taking a page out of Jay-Z’s concert manual — performed with a live band known simply as Z.

In a 75-minute span, the Queens native squeezed in songs from every stage of his 18-year career. He began with orchestral opener “No Introduction” and boom bap heavy-hitter “The Don” off his latest album, “Life Is Good,” then rewound to material off his seminal debut, “Illmatic,” including “N.Y. State of Mind,” a guitar-heavy “Represent” and jazz-laced “The World Is Yours” and “Life’s a Bxtch.”

Mid-career tracks “Nas Is Like” and the emo-rap of “Hate Me Now” played to Nas’ strengths, but “If I Ruled The World,” his duet with Hill, proved a major missed opportunity, as Z lead singer Eddie Cole handled the hook while Hill stayed out of sight.

New tracks “Bye Baby,” a kiss-off to ex-wife and singer Kelis, and “Accident Murderers,” a veiled plea to end urban violence, were both well-received. A medley that included “Halftime” and the In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida-sampling “Hip Hop Is Dead” banged appropriately.

The live band gave Nas’ material more texture and at times an experimental edge, from the George Clinton-style bass on “Got Urself A…” to the trippy rock undertones of “It Ain’t Hard To Tell.”

“Made You Look” sent the entire venue in a frenzy and the creeping upsurge of “One Mic” proved a powerful set-closer.

But the highlight of the night was “Locomotive,” a new, mid-tempo number that rumbled methodically as Nas displayed the precision and poetry that’s cemented him as rap royalty.

Lauryn Hill is still pretty incredible, even though her live shows don’t really make sense anymore.

Ms. Hill appeared after a tedious hour wait that, judging by the number of fans who left during her set, may not have been worth it.

The 37-year-old’s brilliance and reclusiveness have been well-documented. There’s no doubt she’s created some of the most important music in hip hop both as a solo star and a member of The Fugees, and her vocal talent and rapid-fire rhymes remain intact. Lyrics from a new song she played on Sunday, “Black Rage,” prove she still has potent verses left in her arsenal.

But her 85-minute set felt like the musical equivalent of staring at a Magic Eye picture and straining to see the hidden 3-D image buried inside, hoping it will appear and the seemingly bizarre will make some sense.

This is a Magic Eye picture. Can you see the hidden image? If not, now you know how I felt during Lauryn Hill’s set on Sunday.

It didn’t really make sense.

A bass-heavy “Ex-Factor” punctuated by tribal drums was the only song that resembled the original, and not surprisingly it was the night’s best.

Tracks like “Killing Me Softly” (which appeared twice) “Everything Is Everything,” “How Many Mics” and “Fu Gee La” were buried beneath frenetic, abrasive rock mixes, or reggae grooves, or both, that rendered them almost unrecognizable.

“Lost One” became three different songs, each with its own tempo and treatment.

On “Final Hour,” Hill broke into a harmonizing segment with her backup singers, then cut off the singers mid-note, then brought the band in with a swipe of her arm for more hyperspeed harmonizing. It was both impressive and exhausting.

If many of Hill’s musical choices seemed strange, even her outfit was deliberately odd: She wore a white fitted cap, fur coat and oversized pants pleated at the waist with a white button-down shirt tucked into them.

Not to be boxed in by musical convention, fashion trends or venue curfews, Hill performed the remixed, sped-up set-closer “Doo Wop (That Thing)” even after the House of Blues turned off her mic and turned up the lights.

The total effect was like a giant, hovering question mark.

Whether she’s trying to breathe new life into old material or attempting to prove she’s beyond boundaries, expectations and rules, Lauryn Hill in a fur coat and baggy pants performing fast-paced reggae-rock tunes is a lot to figure out when it’s midnight and you’ve already spent four hours at the venue.

Nas’ set felt like a dose of rap wisdom. Hill’s just felt like work.

[Orig. published in The Sun Chronicle]


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