Move over Kanye, Jay-Z and all the other contenders to the throne: Nas is the king of hip-hop in 2008.
That's ironic, given that the rapper was the one who famously proclaimed that "Hip Hop is Dead" with the title of his 2006 album. Yet, Nas (born Nasir Jones) now ranks as arguably the single best reason to keep listening to the genre.
It's exciting to see a major artist perform at the peak of his career, when everybody in the venue seems to know that it's "his time." It's even more of a rush when that musician capitalizes on the moment and delivers a concert that justifies all the attention and acclaim.
That's what happened when Nas performed on Saturday at the Rock the Bells festival at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View. His set was so richly powerful that it eclipsed everything else on the mostly solid bill, which included anticipated outings by De La Soul, Rakim, the Pharcyde, Mos Def and headliners A Tribe Called Quest.
In all, the day-long event was an unqualified success. Everything appeared to run smoothly and the 12,000-strong crowd was as well-behaved and well-mannered as what you'd expect to find at a jazz fest.
I mention the latter because the rap on hip-hop shows is that they can get out-of-hand. The annual Rock the Bells trek, however, is a different kind of hip-hop tour, promoting good will and understanding through rhyme instead of greed, guns and gangs.
Almost every act that performed on the festival's two stages — the regular Shoreline bowl hosted the major names, while a smaller second stage featured lesser-known talents — was worthy of fans' attention.
The Grammy-winning De La Soul put smiles on faces by playing such fun, groovy tunes as "Me Myself and I," from the band's landmark debut, 1989's "3 Feet High and Rising." Method Man and Redman were definite fan favorites, working harder than any other act to connect with the crowd. A Tribe Called Quest delighted with such alt-hip-hop classics as "Bonita Applebum," "Jazz (We've Got)" and "Oh My God," though the quartet, in retrospect, had no business following Nas.
The only weak link that I saw on the main stage was rapper-turned-actor Mos Def, whose lackluster offering was the musical equivalent of his film "Be Kind Rewind." In other words, I'm giving it two thumbs down.
The festival's low point was immediately followed by its defining moment, as Nas took the stage and began dishing out tunes from his newly released ninth album. Officially, the record is untitled. Nas reportedly intended to use the "N word" as its name. When word of that decision leaked last year, from Nas himself, it sparked protests by civil activists Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton as well as from Fox News.
That controversy didn't hurt sales — the album, released in mid-July, sold more than 187,000 copies during its first week on shelves and debuted at No. 1 on the charts. Fortunately, this might be Nas' strongest collection of songs to date, a hypothesis that was further strengthened during his Rock the Bells set.
The rapper was an electrifying presence as he tore through the new album tracks "Black President" and "Sly Fox," a ruthless cut on what Nas called "the worst TV network in the country." His delivery was flawless and his passion was undeniable. He made us put our hands in the air (but not to wave them like we just don't care). His rhymes were full of poignant social and political messages, all of which struck firmly with the crowd.
Without a doubt, Nas' time has come. He's currently delivering the kind of music that should help keep hip-hop alive and well for the foreseeable future.