Getting lost in the excitement over American Gangster (which, of course, itself got lost in all the excitement over In Rainbows) is the fact that Nas is also dropping a new album this fall — on November 6, no less, the same day as Jay-Z. And sure, it’s a contractual-obligation greatest hits for Columbia with only one new track, but it was enough to get Nas to play a fired-up one-off performance Friday night at Roseland Ballroom, so we’re not complaining.
The occasion was Sneaker Pimps, a touring “sneaker lifestyle” show (and not, unfortunately, the mid-nineties electro-pop act), and the lineup was old-school stellar; Jeru the Damaja, EPMD, and Slick Rick all came out for playful, curmudgeonly sets, lambasting the state of hip-hop while gleefully dusting off their classic tracks.
It made sense, then, that Nas, the self-appointed hip-hop vanguard, would headline this show. Rolling out in black aviator shades and a bedazzled Biggie T-shirt (quickly dropped for a beater-and-partially-exposed-undies look), he looked every bit the part of swaggering superstar. When the crowd demanded “Halftime,” off Nas’s beloved debut, Illmatic, he acquiesced; as L.E.S. tried to track down the beat (ultimately in vain), Nas expressed his appreciation for his hometown crowd’s acumen. “I haven’t done that song in thirteen years.” Later, the chants for “Ether” from the front section were overwhelming; kind of awkward, considering Jay-Z, the target of the scathing track, is now signing Nas’s checks (he’s been on Def Jam since last January). But Nas caved in — “Fuck it, we in New York.” We got a teasing taste of the intro, and the crowd answered in kind — “Fuck Jay-Z! Fuck Jay-Z!” — before Nas, smirking, cut them off. —Amos Barshad