Throwback Live

Nas, Lauryn Hill, and '90s Nostlagia

by by Greg Nissan

illustration by by Robert Sandler

It would’ve been hard for me to pass up Nas and Lauryn Hill’s double bill on Monday night at Lupo’s. They’re both legends, frequently appearing on ‘best of’ lists, and though they’ve had drastically different careers (Nas has put out albums consistently since 1994; Lauryn Hill hasn’t come out with an album of new music since 2002), they retain a similar enigma, one tied to ideas of ‘classic rap.’ Nas was cursed by his precociousness—his debut album, 1994’s Illmatic, is regarded as one of the crowning achievements of rap music, and though all of his subsequent albums sold more copies, none has come close to reaching the heights of Illmatic, which epitomizes a jazz-fueled, lyrical East Coast style. After disbanding the Fugees, whose album The Score put Hill and Wyclef Jean on the map, Hill released her canonical album, 1998’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. It was the height of neo-soul and Hill’s brand of politically-minded spoken-word rap. She hasn’t come out with a studio album since. While Hill is undoubtedly the master of what she does—nobody else could be considered at the height of soul singing, rapping, and musical activism like she is—I wonder if her lack of production has attributed to her godlike status.

I wasn’t entirely sure why Nas and Lauryn Hill were touring together (they don’t play any songs together, and both can sell tickets on their own), but both their opening DJs made the connection clear. Nas’s DJ Greenland kept shouting, “1997, classic hip hop!” while playing songs like T.I.’s “What You Know,” which came out in 2006. While the crowd was mostly too young to have experienced the ’90s golden age of rap first hand, this entire show was sold as a ‘throwback.’ Lauryn Hill’s DJ gave a shout-out to “anybody over 25” while also deploying poorly thought out crowd pleasers like “90s hip hop. This shit was real before MTV,” totally glossing over the fact that MTV was very popular in the 90s and that he was playing songs from Watch The Throne. These DJs marketed a lost golden age to a generation that never experienced it, ignoring the sustained popularity of Nas (especially his earlier work) and Lauryn Hill (I wish I could refer to her earlier work, since there’s no later work) through the years.

The headliners’ sets characterized their entire careers in many ways. Nas was on time, his band was unbelievably tight, and he charismatically rolled through classics and songs from his very enjoyable Life Is Good, which came out this July. Hill showed up 45 minutes late, and though her voice is still beyond heavenly and her raps jaw-dropping, she spent too much time controlling every detail of her band’s performance. To anyone who thinks she was just orchestrating the performance with her artistic insight, keep this in mind-anyone with the talent and esteem of Lauryn Hill can get a band that doesn’t need to be guided on every moment of every song, so much so that Hill would sing off the microphone while frantically gesturing to her back-up singers. It only highlighted the disparity between Nas and Lauryn Hill-they’re both immensely talented, but Nas treats music like a job and Lauryn Hill treats it like a god-given gift. Nas has been through great, bad, and mediocre albums, finally making it to his most recent, which deftly addresses his middle age as a rap trope. He’s dealt with the overwhelming presence of his debut, and he’s still going. Hill, on the other hand, has made one new song in recent years, “Black Rage,” and is notorious for demeaning her fans, showing up late, or not showing up at all. While she ran through a ton of crowd pleasers, including Fugees songs that nobody expected, I couldn’t help but be reminded of all the albums she hasn’t made. Even if Nas never matched Illmatic, he’s made some great music. Hill is too concerned with her stance as The Queen (it’s in many ways merited given her unique blend of top-rate talents) and her political stance ‘against the industry’ to make music. She’s apparently coming out with a new album at some point, but we’ll see if that happens. Hopefully it will.

While Nas and Lauryn Hill seem to hail from the same era, Nas has found a place for himself in the current rap scene, even if it is as an elder statesman. The shameless pandering to ‘old-school’ rap fans was entirely out of place at Lupo’s, though. It might’ve just been the two goofy DJs, like Hill’s, who dropped gems like this one: “Give it up for ‘peace and love.’ There’s a lot of shit in this world. Literally this is raw shit,” with no follow up. One can only hope that the next time Lauryn Hill comes around, it won’t be a throwback show.

GREG NISSAN B’15 epitomizes a jazz-fueled, East Coast style.