Offering its strongest lineup in years, with some of the biggest names in rap performing their greatest albums in their entirety, Guerilla Union’s annual Rock the Bells festival displayed impeccable booking instincts at the San Manuel on Saturday. Yet it still hasn’t necessarily found the best way to showcase the assembled talent. It’s almost churlish to nitpick: The annual tour, which hits New York on Sept. 3, provides the most reliable hit of pure pleasure a hip-hop-head could ever expect — but with a little tweaking, it could be a truly great platform.
Last year, Rock the Bells made the long-awaited move to a general admission festival grounds, only to see organizational snafus force it back to its previous home at the San Manuel Amphitheater this year. One hopes they will try again. Not only were scheduling conflicts between the four stages unfortunate — to have to choose between catching Lauryn Hill and Ghostface Killah & Raekwon is every right-thinking rap fan’s nightmare — but the San Manuel’s main stage is one of the few venues where a 20,000-person crowd can appear small, with the strictly enforced seating areas making the huge amphitheater feel even less intimate than it actually is.
In fact, the only time the main stage saw a full-capacity crowd was for Nas’ late-evening run through “Illmatic.” One of a very few number of rap albums to inspire multiple book-length scholarly analyses, the 1994 classic is essentially the “Citizen Kane” of hip-hop — a near-perfection of the form delivered as a debut work, later to become as much a touchstone for young rappers as a millstone for its creator. In past concerts, Nas has often seemed eager to burn through “Illmatic” material as quickly as possible, and there was some trepidation that he would approach this performance with similar nonchalance.
He didn’t. Performing in front of a re-creation of the rapper’s Queensbridge housing project, Nas tackled the record with ecstatic gusto, bringing as much fire to live standard “N.Y. State of Mind” as he did to the rarely performed “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park).” In addition to the full album, the set was packed with delirious Easter eggs, including a beat-battle between DJ Premier and Pete Rock, an appearance from “Illmatic’s” lone guest star AZ and even a run through Main Source’s 1991 “Live at the Barbeque,” on which the then-16-year-old Nas recorded his first head-turning guest verse.
Hill managed to retain much of Nas’ capacity crowd for the start of her fest-closing run through the multiple Grammy-winning “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” yet only traces of that audience remained by the time Nas re-emerged at the end of her set to perform “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)” with the headliner.
Hill’s eccentricities as a performer have been well-documented, but her insistence on pushing nearly every one of her songs into double-time, hard-funk jams clearly tested audience patience. (One has to go back to “Bob Dylan at Budokan” to find a similarly radical reworking of such canonical material.) Hill’s rapping is as good as ever, and the set-opening “Lost Ones” was a blast of frenetic energy, yet the range of her singing voice has contracted in years past, with much of the grace and sensuality of “Ex Factor” and “I Used to Love Him” lost in her large band’s pounding tumult.
Fellow late-’90s R&B queen Erykah Badu fared better earlier on, easing relaxedly into “Baduism” with her unflappable sense of style. Mos Def and Talib Kweli, reunited as Black Star, missed their inexplicably early 1 p.m. stage time yet delivered a truncated but explosive set just prior to Badu’s, which would have been a fest highlight if not for its brevity.
Time has not been kind to Cypress Hill’s “Black Sunday,” a relatively one-note record which they performed with note-for-note fidelity in the afternoon, and Common was tasteful if unexciting.
The Paid Dues stage featured blogosphere heroes like Curren$y (who broke his foot during some over-exuberant stage-prowling) and Big K.R.I.T., while the aptly named 36 Chambers stage was host to a quartet of Wu-Tang Clansmen, Mobb Deep and “Community” star Donald Glover’s alter-ego Childish Gambino.
Aside from the Black Star delay, presenters Guerilla Union ran a tight ship, keeping multiple plates spinning with few issues. Elusive indie rap legend Doom did cancel his scheduled performance a day prior, but that was actually a step up from his last fest booking in 2008, when he infamously sent a masked impostor to lip-sync in his place.