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Nas stuns, Hill struggles at House of Blues show

G. Valentino Ball

If anyone still questions the reach of hip hop, they need only look at the makeup of the sold-out crowd at the Boston stop of Nas and Lauryn Hill’s co-headlining “Life Is Good/Black Rage” tour at the House Of Blues this past Sunday. Diverse doesn’t begin to describe it. Hardcore underground fans were packed in next to middle-aged moms. You had couples that could have met at a Nas show years ago right beside kids that could have been conceived at one. And to see such a diverse crowd for two artists who are heralded for their social consciousness proves music with a message can endure. But how that music and the artists endure is the question. Hip hop icons Nas and Lauryn Hill displayed a stark contrast in their approaches during subsequent sets.

Queens, N.Y. rapper Nas took the stage with his six-piece band, which included mixtape legend and producer Green Lantern as his DJ. With nearly 20 years’ worth of material to pull from, Nas faced the daunting task of putting together a set that pleased new and old fans alike, a task he seemed to relish. After a couple of selections from his latest album, “Life Is Good,” Nas went into tracks from his classic debut, “Illmatic.” The new material was used like interludes between mini-sets of his hit-filled catalog. Anchored by Green Lantern, a live band served his material well, particularly with his newer songs. His iconic work with DJ Premier’s minimalistic beats, on songs like “Represent” and “Nas Is Like,” might have been better off without the rock star treatment. But for the most part, Nas allowed his songs to breathe with the band acting to accent instead of overpower for an overall strong performance.  

Lauryn Hill, who practically pioneered the use of a live band in hip hop, had a different take. She had the tighter and more precise band, yet her set was uneven. Hill chose to take her tunes and give them radical reworkings. This is nothing new for her. From her time with the Fugees, Hill has always rebuilt her songs, making her b-sides and remixes into must-haves. But the crowd that loved those versions is made up of the most die-hard of fans. In some cases, like her show-opening roots reggae version of “Killing Me Softly,” it worked great.  But many times the ska-paced takes on Hill’s “Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill” classics were so different that they couldn’t be recognized until they reached the chorus. Add to that her seemingly constant battle with audio problems and she appeared to be rushing through songs, which left the crowd lost.

Fans seemed to silently pay attention like they were listening to brand new material. The variations were so different that it didn’t allow fans to connect with the music. It was definitely a creative approach, but in her fight to not be a walking karaoke machine, Hill may have pushed the needle too far. It was an artistically sound performance that turned off members of the audience just looking for the hits. By the time she reached her spot on show-closing “Doo Wop (That Thing) and her mic was cut off because of the venue curfew, the crowd had thinned to only the most devoted.