Nas & Ms. Lauryn Hill. Fillmore.11.16.12

Every time I walk into a hip-hop show, I do my best to leave my expectations at the door.  Despite my best intentions, I usually walk out disappointed by the complete lack of respect the artists have for the people who paid money to see them perform.  I know I’ve said this many times before, but the late-starts, crowded stages and overall quality of sound make for something less than just listening to the music in your car.  Last night proved to be something else altogether.

First off, Nas must have taken the stage sometime around 8:15pm.  I can respect a prompt start, even welcome it, but I had called the venue earlier in the day and they told me Nas would be on around 9ish.  That told me there would be no sign of Nasir Jones until at least 10pm.  When we arrived at 9pm, we had missed half the set.  Disappointing to say the least.  Yet, the performance was anything but.  Backed by a full band, a legitimate backup singer (vs. an awful hypeman) and DJ Green Lantern, Nas held his own as the centerpiece of the stage.  Speaking out about his personal life and recent divorce in between songs from his excellent new album, Life Is Good, Nas presented a shining example of what a mature master can sound like after 2o years in the game.  Unfortunately, we missed the many classics that came early in the set, but tracks such as “Bye Baby”, “Get Down”, “Made You Look” and “One Mic” were all worth the price of admission, and the band did well to add that little something special to the arrangement — making you feel like seeing it live was something more than listening to a recording.

On a personal note, Nas is one of my favorite emcees.  Always has been.  And while he has always been somewhat of an underdog compared to the artists he came up with,  I believe he has a huge advantage (by being alive alone) over them in 2012.  His voice is strong, his flow is still smooth, he still writes thought-provoking, honest and relevant songs, and everything he releases has top-notch production.  It was a major letdown to have missed a good portion of the set last night, but from what we did see, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy a ticket next time he comes around.

So that brings us to Lauryn Hill.  Google her name + ‘live review’ and you’ll come up with horror story after horror story.  Everything from 3 hour wait times to onstage breakdowns — she bosses her band around, she’s unbalanced, she’s preachy, she sounds like shit — on and on and on.  Well, I’m not going to argue that Ms. Hill has been the most stable of artists over the years, but I will say that I believe she’s getting a bad rap.  Last night’s performance was amazing.  And for those who left (over half the sold-out crowd were gone by the end of her set), you missed out on an amazing close from a woman who might not be back around again.

First off, she took the stage less than an hour after Nas made his exist.  10:50pm is an incredibly early start time for the headliner of this tour, yet quite a few people had already left.  The set opened with a funky, jazzed up version of “Killing Me Softly”.  Hill was also backed by a full band (a slightly better band than Nas had) and 3 backup singers.  It was immediately evident that the arrangement of the songs would be something quite different than they are on her album, but it was also immediately evident that the rumours about her voice being shot were bullshit.  Ms. Lauryn Hill sounded pitch perfect from where I was standing.

Second, she is a diva, of course, but the waiving of her hands at her band, and the call for them to ‘bring this up’ or ‘take that down’ felt much more spontaneous than bossy.  Where many have seen a bitchy diva disrespecting her band, I saw a woman in the moment, adjusting the rhythm of her flow, and that of her band, to best adapt to the energy of the song, the room and her own body.  I can understand how fans of her album might not like the change-up to their favorite songs, but if you are truly a fan, why can’t you just appreciate seeing an artist do her thing?

To the third point, she can get a little preachy.  When she introduced her new song, “Black Rage”, she told the crowd to ‘shhhhh!’ and ‘listen to the words’.  When the crowd did not give in to this demand, she repeated the lyrics acapella after the song had ended — once again telling the crowd to ‘shhhh!’  This is where she lost a good half of the venue.  People starting leaving in droves, which is a shame, because the best really was yet to come.  Almost as a reward for those who stayed, a Fugees marathon followed.  By this point, the place was so empty, we were able to get right up front….

“How Many Mics”, “Fu-Gee-La”, “Ready or Not” and an acapella “Killing Me Softly” closed out the main set in absolute style. It was a highlight of the night and of my year.  Having never seen Fugees back the the day, I’m sure it didn’t compare to seeing the whole collective in ’96, but it was the next best thing.

And as if that run of classics hadn’t already proved the naysayers wrong, Ms. Hill sat down with an acoustic guitar for “I Get Out”, proving once again that while her mental stability may be up for debate, her vocal capabilities are not.  The encore ended with “Doo Wop (That Thing)”, sending the small crowd into a frenzy…myself included.

I have to hand it to both Nas and Ms. Hill.  Both artists could just be names from the 90’s that you tell your kids about, but last night they earned their names up on the marquee.  Light ’em up and show respect, because there are very few hip-hop artists who can not only survive the game, but literally shine after 20 years in it.

No Intro
The Don
Back When
NY State of Mind
Ain’t Hard to Tell
The World is Yours
Life’s a Bitch
The Message
Street Dreams
If I Ruled The World
Can’t Forget About You
Queens Story
Nas is Like
Hate Me Now
Bye Baby
Cherry Wine
Accident Murderers
Get Down
We Major (partial)
Hip Hop Is Dead (partial)
World’s An Addiction
Got Yourself A…
Made You Look
One Mic

Lauryn Hill:
Killing Me Softly
Everything Is Everything
Forgive Them Father
Final Hour
Lost Ones
Black Rage
How Many Mics
Ready or Not
Killing Me Softly

I Get Out
Could You Be Loved
Doo Wop (That Thing)

LH Setlist