Nas proved that he still reigns supreme in the East Coast hip-hop world during his 90-minute set at Upstate Concert Hall Friday night.
The veteran rapper plowed through hits spanning his entire career, focusing heavily on favorites from his classic 1994 debut “Illmatic” and the new “Life is Good.” Throughout, Nas kept things light and loose, smiling often and basking in the packed audience’s adoration. He mentioned quite a few times between songs that the intimate confines of the club felt like a show from the beginning of his career, and this came across in both his and his six-piece band Z’s performances.
Speaking of the band, they were monstrous. It’s not often that fans get to see a top hip-hop solo artist backed by a full band — most seem content to rely on their disc jockeys for their backing tracks. Nas certainly had one, DJ Green Lantern, who set the pace and provided plenty of ear candy throughout the evening. But it was Z, and especially the band’s taut rhythm section of drummer Margis Miles and bassist Dustin Moore, that made these songs shine.
Nas and company wasted no time, hitting the stage at 10:15 and immediately tearing into “No Introduction.” He tore into the big guns early, offering up “Illmatic’s” biggest hit, “N.Y. State of Mind,” as the crowd began pumping their fists in unison and shouting the lyrics back at the stage. This would become a familiar sight throughout the evening — at times, Nas merely had to conduct the crowd in a roaring chorus.
The early set built to a fever pitch, with Nas throwing out bits of “Represent,” “The World is Yours” and the anthemic “Life’s a Bitch” with rapid-fire intensity. His band gamely followed suit, nailing all the changes and bringing a soulful groove to the material. Nas eventually built up to the grooving “If I Ruled the World,” which ended up being a showcase not for his rhymes, but for Z’s singer Eddie Cole (great-nephew of Nat King Cole), whose smooth delivery on the song’s hook put the performance over the top.
From here, Nas took the contemplative route with “Daughters,” one of the more surprisingly heartfelt tracks from the otherwise bitter breakup album “Life is Good.” Although it was a little difficult for the crowd to maintain its wild dancing for such an introspective number, the band and Nas himself more than made up for this with their intensity.
Late set highlights included the snarling “Hate Me Now,” and another new joint, “Bye Baby,” during which Nas specifically dedicated the song to his ex-wife, singer Kelis (although never mentioning her name). Hearing his duet with Amy Winehouse, “Cherry Wine,” was a treat, even if it was just a snippet of the song. And “Accident Murderers” stung with fiery anger and passion.
The evening climaxed with “One Mic,” with the band riding a soft verse groove into a growling chorus that left the crowd shouting for more.
Singer-songwriter Jhene Aiko opened the show with a 45-minute set of hip-hop-tinged R&B and soul. Aiko was in fine form, delivering her best performances on quirky single “Space Jam” and the soulful set closer “Stranger,” and quickly won the crowd over.