Last Night: Nas & Lauryn Hill at Bayou Music Center

Nas, Lauryn Hill Bayou Music Center October 31, 2012

Houston caught two rap greats for the price of one last night. On one corner was Nas, arguably the greatest lyricist of his generation; on the other, Lauryn Hill, the best hybrid rapper/singer hip-hop has ever seen. One show had the crowd of young hip-hop heads going nuts, while the other left the crowd behind.

Nas went first. I've seen him twice in concert and really liked him Wednesday. His songs are a mix of street observations and personal narratives, highlighting stories of pain and love and confusion and addiction. He's a storyteller.

Shortly after his daughter Instagrammed a box of condoms, he revealed his struggle as a parent on the Life Is Good track "Daughters." On the same album, he shared thoughts on his divorce battle with star singer Kelis. He's discussed bitter frenemies, cheating exes, his father's infidelity, mother's death, etc.

If you're reading this review in 2031, you've probably heard a track about his son Knight by now. Nas is comfortable putting himself out there, no doubt.

And yet, it's not the personal stuff that makes his catalog throb. Wednesday, while running through two decades of material stretched out over his hour-long set, it was the street anthems (Nas prefers another term, "classic") that had the crowd going zonkers.

He carved out a 15-minute segment of his set just for these: "Get Down" segued into "Stillmatic Intro," which gave way to the Firm's "Phone Tap," then "We Major," followed by "Hip-Hop Is Dead" during the "Here's Another Classic" portion of Nas' set.

Each song was an opportunity to reaffirm his place as an unflinching street poet. And then there's the live band. Nas' touring band named, simply, Z (p/k/a Mulatto) brought life to many of the songs: a treacly "World Is an Addiction" turned a mellow jam, while "Nasty" soundtracked by Biggie's "One More Time," as Nas conveniently bragged about his "Maserati pumping Biggie the great legend."

Nas' set was a display in classic hip-hop braggart, but there was nothing insecure about the way he went about it. He seems calm and content these days. He closed with fan favorite "One Mic" and reminded us "that's all I ever needed."

A full hour passed between the end of Nas' set and the start of Lauryn Hill's. Where Nas only needed one mic and a band, Lauryn needed much more. She micromanaged her set -- motioning to the band, signaling to the three backup singers, and singing her bit without missing a beat; at the start of "Lost One" she had the band restart the song ("If you're gonna do it, do it big," she instructed).

Like Nas, Hill wants to tell stories that inspire. And while she wanted people to focus on her lyrics Wednesday, it was her voice that stole the spotlight. She was just as comfortable singing as she was rapping (she kicked her rhymes in double time for good measure). I've only seen two hip-hop artists who sounded exactly the same on wax as they did live: Rakim and Lauryn Hill.

It feels weird calling Hill a hip-hop artist these days. She spent a good portion of last night's show blending genres. No song showed up in its original form. The live band turned "Everything is Everything" into a pulsing reggae groove; "Superstar" got the guitar treatment; "Ex Factor" started as a jazz number and exploded into a rock stomper.

Hill's 16-song set was much shorter than Nas', but it dragged on for an hour and half. Sadly, remixing those wildly cherished hits beyond recognition took the crowd out of the experience. At times, it felt like watching an opera.

As the clock approached midnight, folks started trickling out of Bayou Place. This owes, in part, to the fact that it was a midweek show. Those who didn't have to wake up for a 9-5 the next morning got to see the only song rendered in its original form, the Grammy-winning "Doo Wop (That Ting)." This time, everyone joined in. It was the most enjoyable performance of the night, rivaled only by her flawless rendition of "Ready or Not."

She did nothing less than justice to her new song "Black Rage." Hill demanded that we pay attention to the words before, during and after the song. So we did:

Free enterprise Is it myth or illusion Forcing you back into purposed confusion

Try if you must But you can't have my soul Black rage is founded on ungodly control

So when the dog bites And I'm feeling so sad I simply remember all these kinds of things And then I don't feel so bad

Overheard In the Crowd: "Her pants ain't on fire. She gotta come out!" -- a fan, while waiting for Lauryn to take the stage.

Random Notebook Dump: Seeing as this was Halloween, we spotted several costumes in the building, namely: Statue of Liberty, LL Cool J, Texans cheerleader, witch, the Joker, nun, chef, Evelyn Lozada.



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