“Careers like this start in clubs like this.” So says one of the greatest rappers of all time, in a venue so small that he could have shaken the hand of practically every audience member without leaving the stage.
Nas is in the middle of his most productive phase in many years – and his most personally challenging. Life Is Good, released last month, is perhaps his best LP since you-know-what; a consistently entertaining record that sees Nasir Jones abandon his ill-fated attempts either to court mainstream radio or to satiate the appetites of the “trapped-in-the-‘90s niggas” who, for the better part of two decades, have been clamouring for the multi-millionaire megastar to go back to rapping about stash spots and stickup kids.
On the home front, though, all is not well. He has been divorced from Kelis for more than two years, but his ex-wife looms large over his work – as evidenced by the cover of Life Is Good, from which Nas peers, inquisitively, clad in an Escobar-esque white suit, his wife’s wedding dress draped over his knee. Meanwhile financial pressures are mounting, the rapper having allegedly underpaid his income tax by $6.4 million dollars. He has, as he says midway through his set, “a lot of things on my mind.”
Tonight, though, preoccupied or not, Nas is in a generous mood. He appears onstage (in white vest and chain thus appearing, pleasingly enough, precisely as he does in that ubiquitous promo shot) and careers straight into ‘The Don’, a dancehall-tinted, bass-weighty highlight from Life Is Good. The rumbling boom-bap of the Major Lazer-esque track is infinitely more impressive on the 100 Club’s ear-splitting system than on CD – but the screams have barely subsided, the arms not yet descended, before he pulls up halfway and announces that he wants to “go back a few years”.
Within twenty minutes Jones has turned in snippets of a good third of Illmatic. It takes mere seconds of ‘N.Y. State of Mind’ to provide an unmistakable reminder of just how good Nas was, and still is. His voice has barely changed since 1994. The hint of a lisp, the slight hoarseness, the devastatingly accurate inflection – it’s all there. It’s the sort of voice that rappers either have and lose, or spend a career trying to find. Nas had it at 19, and he’s still got it.
He comes out swinging, but it’s not long before the wheels begin to – well, if not to come off, then to wobble. Tonight, the 100 Club is as hot as any room in London. Even before Nas appears people are pushing for the exit, looking as if they’ve been unceremoniously passed through a cattle trough. The heat only gets worse, and it is a matter of minutes before Nas and his DJ start to show the strain. ‘Summer On Smash’ is abandoned halfway because it’s “too hot to be singing about summer” (no bad thing, given that the track is amongst Life Is Good’s relative embarrassments). Meanwhile ‘Loco-Motive’ suffers from four false starts, Nas apparently unable to find his cue, before that too is abandoned to a smattering of awkward applause.
And yet rather than irritating, the set’s roughness actually impresses. Trite as it may seem, it is a delight to watch Nas work so hard. There is a sense that he has spent much of the last decade coasting, unsure about his next move. Now, though, he seems revitalised, renewed – keen to graft. The set is peppered with tenuous cod-philosophy, the rapper keen to hammer home the idea that ‘Life Is Good’ is a maxim, rather than just an album title. But even in the carpe diem platitudes Nas sounds convincing. You might not care about his new, just-be-good disposition, but he certainly does – and it seems to be informing some of his best work in many years.
Nas’ focus has undoubtedly shifted inwards. It is telling that ‘Bye Baby’, a chronicle of his divorce dedicated onstage “to my ex-wife”, is one of very few tracks that Nas plays all the way through. Matters of the heart, and of the wallet, clearly continue to preoccupy him. But if that preoccupation means another record as impressive as Life Is Good, and more performances as imperfectly entertaining as tonight’s, it’s a sacrifice that we should be happy for him to make.