Only halfway through this past weekend's show at Chene Park, and the crowd had already heard practically all of one of the best albums of all time.
Nasir Jones a.k.a. Nas walked out on the amphitheater stage on a beautiful night following a hot and humid day. Nas looked commanding, with a t-shirt, sunglasses, and minimal onstage frills beyond a DJ and a smoke machine. He promised to take us back through the years, and he immediately fulfilled that by dedicating the first portion of his set to the first half of Illmatic, his 1994 debut album that every great rap effort still always gets compared to. Chene Park was sold out seemingly beyond its capacity, with all fans young and old packed in and quickly responsive to Nas’s jams. He did “N.Y. State of Mind,” “Life’s a Bitch,” “The World Is Yours,” “Halftime,” and the material felt just as fresh and relevant and immediate as I’m sure it did when the record first came out.
But it wasn’t over after that. There’s a bit of a narrative with Nas that Illmatic was a bit of a curse, something he’s never been able to top or live up to. I buy into that a little bit, but Saturday’s show was a reminder that Nas’s legacy holds up beyond just one record. He hit other pieces of Illmatic throughout the rest of the night, but he also seemed to deliver classic song after classic song outside of that album, wowing everyone by running through tracks like “If I Ruled The World,” “Nas Is Like,” “Street Dreams,” and “Hate Me Now” and getting big cheers and singalongs on all of them.
The performance itself, not just the material, was on point as well. Nas didn’t exactly interact with the fans all that much, mostly pacing back and forth behind his speakers, but he hit almost all of his lines with deadly accuracy—the most important thing an MC with great lyrics can do live. Sure, it could’ve been a Nas show from the ’90s, save some Hennessy product placement and a performance of “Hip Hop Is Dead,” but that’s partly kind of astounding—despite 15-20 years separating him from much of the material, Nas’s show never showed any dust, and his words are just as compelling as they’ve always been.
The first-billed artist for the night, Erykah Badu, didn’t exactly make herself mysterious, coming out for a brief moment early in Nas’s set to give him a hug before again retreating backstage. She entered for real around 10:45 or so, and it was clear that she, too, was not afraid to take the audience back in time. Wearing an enormous sunhat and a long white coat with overalls underneath, Badu gave a vintage performance of groovy neo-soul from classic albums like Baduizm and Mama’s Gun. She broke out songs like “On & On,” “Apple Tree,” and “Time’s a Wasting” early on in the set. The bass and keyboards propelled most of the material, while Badu’s quite talented back-up singers did a spectacular job of augmenting her great vocals. Even though she wasn’t much for huge attention-grabbing dance moves or pyrotechnics, preferring instead to mostly just stand behind the mic and occasionally add to the music with electronic pads, Badu kept the whole crowd’s attention through the power of her music. Where Nas looked hungry to assert his dominance onstage, Badu seemed relaxed and confident in her ability to please a crowd from the very first moment.
As things got closer to midnight, Badu wasn’t in any mood to turn it down. “I love y’all, but I’m getting tired of this sitting down shit,” she told us before launching into “Tyrone,” one of the baddest break-up songs ever written. She followed that up with “Danger” a song whose proto-trap beats she made sure to acknowledge after it was finished.
Badu closed the main set with a tribute to Detroit’s own J-Dilla, introducing “Didn’t Cha Know” by talking about how, when she was much younger, she heard the bassline on a record in Dilla’s basement in Detroit, and he helped her surround it with other instruments. It was a bittersweet moment that made the show feel special—lots of artists can shout out how great Detroit is, but it really does mean something when an artist from out of town has a true personal connection to the city.
Badu did say that “Didn’t Cha Know” would be her last song, so she shouldn’t exactly blame everyone who got up to leave afterwards, but after some impassioned pleading to the crowd from one of the back-up vocalists, most of the park stayed for a celebratory victory-lap-type performance of “Bag Lady,” another old classic that was possibly the song that the people most wanted to hear.
It was a bit of a nostalgic night in general for Nas and Badu. Neither had a new album to promote so there was no pressure whatsoever to focus on any new material. But even though most of the songs performed came from 10, 15, even 20 years ago, this wasn’t a heritage act show. Nas and Badu are two artists who were so ahead of their time when they came out, their old hits still feel perfectly at home in 2015.