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Nas rocks the Kennedy Center in DC to mark the 20th Anniversary of 'Illmatic' - photos by Ralston Smith
Nas rocks the Kennedy Center in DC to mark the 20th Anniversary of 'Illmatic' - photos by Ralston Smith

Nas' Historic 20 Year Anniversary of 'Illmatic' at The Kennedy Center in D.C.

Exclusive photos courtesy of Ralston Smith

It’s impossible not to appreciate the gravity of the moment Nas took the stage in the largest concert hall of DC’s Kennedy Center Friday night. In the front of the house, 2500 disciples buzzed impatiently under vintage Norwegian chandeliers, ready to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the undisputed classic Illmatic. In back, 96 players from the National Symphony Orchestra and conductor Steven Reineke prepared to breathe life into productions from hip-hop royalty Large Professor, DJ Premier, Q-Tip, Pete Rock and L.E.S. To stage right, DJ Green Lantern with turntables on prominent display. And finally, to stage left, a critically lauded rhythm section in Derrick Hodge and Daru Jones on bass and drums, respectively. Nas might only need one mic but tonight the production was on 'swoll' with a kinetic energy, bursting at the seams by the time we heard the first notes of “New York State of Mind.”

Dressed for the occasion, Nas prowled the stage in a dapper tux while ripping cold-blooded lines built for the corner. His army of musicians wove an ominous backdrop of loping keys and screeching horns through the opening salvo that marked the beginning of a heavy, but not exclusively, Illmatic set. An extremely participatory “Life’s A Bitch” (let’s take a moment to contemplate the catharsis that is 2500 people in one of the nation’s premier artistic centers screaming that ‘Life’s a bitch and then ya die, that’s why we get high) provided prelude to an It Was Written... medley culminating in a crowd full of L-boogie stand-ins on the chorus of “If I Ruled The World.” Even after-school-special jams like “I Can” are pretty undeniable in a setting like this.

Arrangers Tim Davies (go to his website and realize you’re not doing enough with your life – dude is killing it in r&b, Hollywood projects, video game scoring...and now this show) and Derrick Hodge handled the material beautifully. Rather than aping the source material, they respected it and added flourishes you didn’t know you needed that sounded absolutely brilliant in this acoustic scenario. Even when the violinists weren’t playing, they were head nodding hard which thrilled the 14 year old in me.

“Live at the BBQ” was a wholly unexpected gem that had Nas noticeably amped, showing and proving like he was in the booth with Main Source. This was a deeper dive for fans who didn’t grow up with NYC mix shows and, until the internet, may not have tracked down his ferocious debut from 1991. This marked a midway point before diving back into the Illmatic material which included a masterful transition from “One Love” into “Represent.” Green Lantern handled the vocal hook on the former while the latter’s chorus got a full-on Curtis Mayfield “Give Me Your Love” treatment from the horn section.

Fittingly, the set closed with “One Mic,” also the name taken in tribute for the Kennedy Center’s three-week long hip-hop festival happening through April 13th. At this point the orchestra had left and Nas retained just a keyboards, DJ, bass and drums for the contemplative record. This was a cool down from the unabashedly ape-shit “Made You Look” that preceded it with a frothing crowd bubbling into a frenzy over the “Apache” beat. I pray that some member--any member--of the Braveheart clique was there to hear the crowd chanting like it was 2002.

To describe this experiment as an unequivocal success would be an understatement. 5000 tickets sold from 36 to 85 dollars to hip-hop fans born in the '70s to the early aughts, hip-hop on the marquee of The Kennedy Center, and one of the legends of the culture truly humbled and showing out over the course of 90 minutes. Several times, Nas took a moment to reflect on the situation and the myriad instruments behind him, incredulous. Maybe he was in disbelief at how far he’d come, but, so were we – and it was awesome.