By Gerrick D. Kennedy
April 13, 2014, 12:00 p.m.
Nas, Jay Z and Diddy hit the stage together at Coachella to celebrate a landmark hip-hop album.
Twenty years ago Nas, a hungry 20-year-old emcee from New York’s tough Queensbridge projects, issued his debut, “Illmatic.”
The album, with its stark coming-of-age narrative on the pits of inner-city life in a drug-fueled, poverty-stricken housing project, set a new benchmark for hip-hop.
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Nas feted the game-changing album — it officially hits the milestone a week later — during his late night set on the Outdoor stage.
Now 40, Nas is a rarity in hip-hop: an elder statesman who’s not only endured two decades in the industry but kept his cultural relevance and influence intact. The feat is especially impressive given the genre’s slant toward championing youthful, more commercial, trends.
In rap, the term “classic” is tossed around loosely. But “Illmatic,” widely considered one of the greatest rap records of all time, is among them.
Anchored by his lyrical dexterity and masterful storytelling, Nas’ knack for biting social commentary and deeply detailed narratives drove the album, became his calling card and cemented him as a rap great who would continue to inspire new generations over the following two decades. (It’s evident that new-school wordsmiths like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole have greatly studied Nas.)
Clutching a bottle of his beloved spirit Hennessey, which he’s gone from name-dropping in lyrics to endorsing, Nas emerged onstage shortly after midnight with the casual swagger of a king.
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The high winds, which aggressively whipped blinding dust throughout the festival grounds Saturday evening, kept Nas’ screens out of commission. But the haze of literal grit provided the perfect backdrop to unforgiving tracks such as “N.Y. State of Mind” and “Life’s A Bitch.”
“I bet this album is older than some of y’all out there,” Nas said as he surveyed the audience.
Celebrating hip-hop visionaries has become a bit of a theme at Coachella.
Last year Wu-Tang Clan marked its 20th anniversary here, and Jurassic 5 chose Coachella to launch its reunion tour. OutKast did the same during a headlining slot on Friday with a long-awaited reunion to launch a run of shows to celebrate its 20th anniversary.
There are not many emcees who could anchor a tour with a full run-through of a 20-year-old album and pull a crowd, but Nas did — showing his lasting imprint.
“This is a celebration for me. This album came out on cassette … and ya’ll got me here,” Nas said, his face widening with a grateful smile. “That’s eternal love.”
He moved through the album’s nine songs in the sequence they appear on the album, and only stopped things for once — for the night’s biggest surprise.
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Jay Z, who like Nas is in the very small club of agile rap statesmen who continue to game-change decades into a career, popped up for a two-song medley.
The rivals-turned-friends ran through Jay’s “Dead Presidents” (which samples an “Illmatic” cut) and “Where I’m From,” with the two stopping with the song’s most appropriate, and declarative, line: “Who’s the best MC’s, Biggie, Jay Z and Nas.”
“Peace to the god Nas. I had to come out here and celebrate 20 years of ‘Illmatic,’ ” Jay said.
After powering through “Illmatic” with a nimble ease, he moved through a quick encore and brought out another rap influencer, Diddy, for their once controversial hit “Hate Me Now.”
Diddy, making good on his status as rap’s most flamboyant one-percenter, popped a bottle of luxury champagne Ace of Spades and sprayed the front of crowd to celebrate Nas’ big moment.
“If it wasn’t for you, hip-hop wouldn’t have arrived to the place it has,” Diddy said.
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