What else is left to say about “Illmatic”? Nas’ 1994 debut has been included at or near the top of every credible “greatest hip-hop albums” list for as long as people have been compiling them. It’s inspired two books, countless scholarly essays, a play, and one feature-length documentary. Just last week it soundtracked an entire episode of Netflix’s “Ozark.” Nas has been performing the album’s nine tracks in their entirety off and on since 2011 – this reviewer has seen Nas nine times, and four of those shows included a full “Illmatic” runthrough – and the rapper has even expressed some reservations about its overpowering legacy. And who could blame him? What must it feel like to have created the exemplar of an entire art form on your very first attempt, knowing that your subsequent decades of frequently excellent work will always appear somewhat diminished in its shadow? Perhaps only Orson Welles could fully relate.
On Sunday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Nas did what so many veteran rock and pop artists have done before to shake the cobwebs off their greatest work: he performed it with an entire symphony orchestra. It’s a move that comes with equal degrees of risk and reward – offering opportunities for both grandeur and pomposity – and both were on display when Nas joined Gustavo Dudamel and the L.A. Philharmonic.
To be clear, there is never a bad time to hear Nas rap about Dom P. and “Gandhi,” and if anyone in hip-hop has a voice that resists being swallowed up by a 100-piece orchestra several yards away, it’s him. Rocking an impeccable cream suit and bringing along a DJ and a three-piece band, Nas dressed for the occasion but took every opportunity to lower the formality level when he could, tirelessly stalking the limited stage space and exchanging fist-bumps with Dudamel on the bandstand. He didn’t always try to keep up with every word that his twentysomething self spilled on the record, sometimes stressing the key phrases of his most well-known verses without worrying about the dense flurries of verbiage between them. But he nailed it where it counted, and his delivery was as confident and commanding as ever. Few of the lyrics were altered outright – “Tom Ford on my feet” replaced “suede Timbs” to complete the evening’s formalwear cipher, and one poorly-aged line from “Halftime” was understandably changed – but Nas has been performing these songs for long enough that he knows exactly how to bring in enough interesting new textures and emphases to keep them from growing stale.
As much as “Illmatic’s” peerless reputation has earned it a place in concert halls, it’s not always the most natural fit for an orchestral treatment. Though at the time it represented an unprecedented collection of superstar producers all contributing to the same album, today it sounds quite minimalist by modern hip-hop standards, and making it bigger is not always necessarily an improvement. Opener “N.Y. State of Mind” was presented at full volume, but little the orchestra could add matched the power of the song’s simple repeating piano line. “The World Is Yours” was puffed up with so much grandiosity that it took on a certain lounge-lizard character, which Nas seemed to acknowledge by ad-libbing a bit of Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night” in the outro.
Not surprisingly, Dudamel’s contributions were at their best when he used the orchestra for punctuation, or zeroed in on moments of quieter intimacy. “One Love” was a highlight, especially the second verse, when acoustic bass and a lone saxophone took center stage, highlighting the lonely desperation of the song’s narrator as he writes a letter to an incarcerated friend. “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” saw the whole ensemble gently articulating the Michael Jackson sample at the heart of the song, with strangely melancholy results. And “Life’s a Bitch” offered a natural moment of reflection, with a trumpet solo prompting Nas to offer some words of tribute to his father, jazz musician Olu Dara, and rap a few lines from Slick Rick’s “The Ruler’s Back.”
Of course, one of the key pleasures of seeing a full album performed is getting a chance to hear the deeper cuts. If any track on “Illmatic” could be described as underrated, it’s “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park),” and a brass-heavy arrangement here brought out its more cinematic qualities. Nas introduced “One Time 4 Your Mind” by admitting it’s always been his least-favorite song on the record – with apologies to producer Large Professor – and the offhandedness of his performance gave it a playful vibe.
The courtly environment of the Disney Hall may have stifled some of the audience participation that Nas is used to, and he took pains to keep the crowd engaged as he made his way through the album’s back half. But it wasn’t until the orchestra filed out and Nas tore into a half-hour medley of post-“Illmatic” material with just bass, drums, keys and a DJ that the crowd got to its feel and stayed there. Ironically, so many of the rapper’s later hits that were saved for the stripped-down encore – the bombastic “Hate Me Now,” the slippery “Nas Is Like,” the Beethoven-sampling “I Can” – would have seemed to lend themselves to a full orchestral arrangement more naturally than much of “Illmatic.” But it was still an intriguing experiment, and a rewarding way for Nas to acknowledge his masterwork without losing himself to its legacy.