Nas' set with Soul Rebels on Friday could signal a promising third act in his career.
A lot has changed for Nas since his last full-length release, Life is Good, in 2012. In a recent interview, he claimed a new album would be out before the end of 2017, but he’s been teasing the project for quite some time with nothing to show for it—no singles, no promo, no real hint of a release. Still, his fans remain loyal, and likely always will. Many will be at Jazz Fest Friday when he takes the Congo Square Stage at 5:30 alongside The Soul Rebels.
At 44 years old, there is only so much a rapper can do to stay relevant. Nas, never particularly known for trendiness, has always done so off pure chops. His wordplay and storytelling ability are unparalleled, but these are not necessarily the qualities most valued in today’s hip-hop universe, where the laws of physics favor style over stories. To fans rooted in tradition, Nas is the gold standard, and the Atlanta-based “mumble rap” popularized by Future and Co. is sacrilege. To those looking for the cutting edge, Nas is exactly the type of dusty MC the genre should be moving away from.
Already pigeonholed as a member of hip-hop’s old guard, Nas has a decision on his hands. He can a) stick to what he knows and bask in all the dusty glory of his old school mastery, but lose his already tenuous mainstream appeal, b) try to reinvent himself commercially and alienate his loyal fanbase, or c) focus on his various side-projects/investments (executive producing The Get Down, partnering with Hennessey and Fila, etc.) as he has the past few years, and live his legend status..
Nas’ creative hiatus is earned. His career, now in its third decade, speaks for itself. Illmatic, his 1994 debut, is often cited as one of the greatest rap records ever, and deservedly so. His other 10 studio albums are a mixed bag, but there’s some undeniably great material sprinkled throughout—enough that he’s rapped his way into most “Greatest Of All Time” conversations without ever matching his first effort. This is partly a criticism of his later work, but it’s more of a testament to Illmatic’s enduring power. Twenty-three years after its release, it still perfectly evokes a time many consider hip-hop’s golden age. It’s more than just nostalgia, though. At 19 years old, Nas demonstrated a dexterity with the spoken word that few others have achieved in their lifetimes.
Unfortunately for Nas, Illmatic set the bar too high. In the past 20 years, he’s tried to grow taller than his own enormous shadow, adopting personas like “Escobar” and “God’s son,” the kingpin and the woke street preacher, respectively. But no matter what tack he chose, his later albums--some good, others mediocre--remain dwarfed by his debut.
On Life Is Good, Nas’ eleventh and most recent studio album, he resisted the impulses to posture and preach and touched back down on Planet Earth. It’s a raw, introspective project about aging, divorce, and fatherhood that showcases not only his potent lyricism, but a newfound humility as well. Since then, though, it’s been radio silence from QB’s finest, and it’s unclear whether Life Is Good was a singularity or the start of a trend.
Despite Nas’ lack of output, he still tours extensively. He’s been a fixture on festival circuits, performing alongside artists half his age. Ironically, his sound is as dusty as ever, and he’s even said publicly (albeit somewhat jokingly) that he rarely listens to music made after 1995.
The first time I saw Nas live was in 2011 at Rock the Bells in New York, where he performed Illmatic from start to finish, bringing legends Pete Rock and DJ Premier on stage to help him flex his own godlike status. He was right at home geographically, physically—on a set that recreated his salad days in the Queensbridge projects—and sonically, rapping over beats he’d heard for 15 years.
His last show in New Orleans was at Buku in 2014, on tour for Illmatic's 20th anniversary, where he put on virtually the same show (minus Pete Rock and Premo).
Should we read something into Nas' collaboration with The Soul Rebels? A third act? Probably not, but that doesn't mean the show should be taken lightly. Little about Nas is light, and teaming up with East Coast rappers of a certain age seems to be The Soul Rebels’ M.O. They’ve played with Nas at least twice, Talib Kweli, Joey Bada$$ and New Orleans' Curren$y, and they’ve gone dustier with Rakim at Brooklyn Bowl in 2015.
Fusing ‘90s-era hip-hop with brass band music doesn’t sound exciting on paper, but The Soul Rebels are talented and forward-thinking enough to make it work—and they have. They’ve become nationally known for their ability to collaborate with anyone from Metallica to Big Freedia to Macklemore to Marilyn Manson and make it sound good. With Nas’ flow, still sharp as ever live, it shouldn’t be too difficult.