Closing the show was none other than Nasty Nas performing his immortal 1994 debut Illmatic. But what should have been a highlight turned into a painful dilemma. On another stage at the opposite end of the island Raekwon and Ghostface Killah were doing Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.... Two of the greatest rap albums ever were being performed simultaneously within half a mile of each other, and rap fans were forced to choose which they preferred.
Nas had an intricate stage set-up: A backdrop of the Queensbridge projects complete with fake street lamps and project benches. The props served the performance well, among the many reasons Illmatic is so beloved is the way it romanticised hood life. From its album art to its lyrical content, Illmatic gave the impression that even if someone came from the same projects as Nas, they could still have deep, philosophical thoughts about life “beyond the walls of intelligence.” In Prodigy’s recent autobiography he even wrote about how girls in the ‘90s wanted to visit the hood because Nas’ album had them “mesmerised by the projects.” Say Queensbridge.
During his live set, Nas rocked out with DJ Premier, who also served as hype man along with AZ and Pete Rock, among other. He could certainly use the help: Nas is notorious for forgetting his lyrics, and this stop of RTB was no different as God’s Son struggled to recite rhymes that most of the diehard fans in the audience would know in their sleep. But it didn’t matter; Illmatic is still the most revered hip-hop album ever. Even if Nas stood on stage while the instrumental version of the album played, thousands of fans would still stand there reverently nodding their heads and rapping the lyrics for him.
After Pete Rock came out to perform “The World Is Yours,” Nas ruined his own momentum by letting Pete and Preemo get into a battle of the beats—going back and forth with classic instrumentals like “10 Crack Commandment” and “T.R.O.Y. (The Reminisce Over You).” It would have been suitable for warming up the crowd before Nas’ set, but not as an intermission. When Pete Rock asked the crowd, “Ya got that Watch The Throne album?” before playing “The Joy,” they answered with an unceremonious “No!” Their chilly reception made it clear that contemporary commercial hip-hop had no place at RTB.
Nas eventually came back on stage to march through a medley of hits from his massive catalog. But for us and many others, it was time to get the dipping. We’ve seen Nas move the crowd many times before, but we were already dreading that return voyage. If you thought a ferry ride at 12 PM was bad, imagine one at 12 AM after a show as exhausting as this.
As we boarded the ferry back to the city, leaving one island for another, we could still hear the sounds of the show. Lauryn Hill got on stage with Nas to perform their 1996 #1 single, “If I Ruled The World.” As with so many of the songs performed at RTB, hearing the performance was not the point. The song sounded best as the distant memories that it was.