Music Review: NAS WITH THE LA PHIL (Disney Hall)

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by Lyle Zimskind on May 5, 2022

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles

THE WIZARD OF NAS

While the Los Angeles Philharmonic and its chief conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, are no strangers to fronting pop and hip hop stars at the Hollywood Bowl, these genre-melding collaborations are not a typical programming staple in the Phil’s school-year digs on Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. But on the first night of this month of May, there was Dudamel and there was the Philharmonic taking the stage in Disney Hall to accompany long-time rap icon Nas on a journey through his seminal 1994 album Illmatic.

Released when Nas was just 20 years old, Illmatic still shows up on just about everybody’s shortlists of all-time best rap albums. Nas (born Nasir Jones) was hardly the first recording artist to emerge from, or to write about growing up in, New York’s massive Queensbridge Housing Project, but Illmatic enshrined the hip hop legacy of that tough neighborhood more emphatically than any disc before or after it. Over the course of its ten tracks, Nas also proclaims and demonstrates his own arrival in the pantheon of rap royalty.

As announced, Dudamel and the Phil joined Nas in a performance of Illmatic in its roughly 40-minute entirety. And it was downright exciting when the full ensemble launched into a string-heavy orchestration of Grand Wizard Theodore’s buzzy “Subway Theme” from the movie Wild Style, which Nas originally sampled to kick off the album in its opening track, “Genesis.”

Those in the audience who knew the lyrics to “New York State of Mind,” “The World is Yours,” “Halftime,” “One Love” and all the rest enthusiastically sang along with Nas from beginning to end. Those not already familiar with these songs frankly didn’t get a clear first hearing through the murky vocal microphone amplifier on this Sunday night. But fun is fun, and the Philharmonic’s back row percussionists (some of them anyway) were bopping their heads to the beat of Nas’s rhymes, while DJ Green Lantern and a downstage rhythm combo exchanged subtle cues with Dudamel to keep Illmatic’s samples synchronized with the Philharmonic’s brass and woodwinds.

The genre crossovers in these LA Phil joint concerts with pop stars always go in only one direction, of course. Christina Aguilera didn’t try her hand at any of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs in between “Genie in a Bottle” and “What a Girl Wants” at the Bowl last summer, and here again the orchestra was more a backup outfit than a collaborating curator of the set list. So once Illmatic was complete, the Phil and its conductor took their bows and left the stage to Nas for an additional half hour of some more of his greatest hits. (One of these, 2003’s “I Can,” aptly incorporates a familiar Beethoven riff, even if it is only Für Elise.)

Still, Nas did seem impressed and perhaps a little awed by his surroundings on this occasion, suggesting to the audience a couple times that this was an opportunity he’d been dreaming of for decades and that he “never thought this day would come.” (He also mentioned more than once that he loved every one of us.) Even for a hip hop legend with years of music-making ahead of him, an appearance with the LA Phil in its own house is evidently a career landmark to celebrate.

photos by Craig Mathew/Mathew Made, courtesy of LA Phil

reviewed on May 1, 2022

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