Jay-Z and Nas, living hip-hop legends and former arch foes, stood side by side on the Webster Hall stage Friday night, after 10 fiery minutes of swapping some of their best verses.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to duplicate that again,” a tuxedo-clad Jay told the sold-out hometown crowd, about a third of the way through the two-hour-plus “B-Sides 2” all-rarities concert that he staged on the opening night of the iconic venue. “But that was special.”
He was right on both counts. For starters, the legendary Brooklyn and Queens rappers don’t live in the city anymore, so the opportunities for their pairings are fewer and farther in between. And as their lives have evolved — both are in their late 40s — so too has their hometown and hip-hop itself. Nostalgia, though, proved to be an intoxicating elixir. During those 10 minutes, the two former Kings of New York put on a master class in showmanship and lyrical acumen — and displayed a rooted sense of accomplishment.
Jay dug deep into the vault on multiple occasions on this night, but the Nas team-up was the centerpiece. “Success,” the duo’s second collaboration, from Jay’ “American Gangster” album, set the table for he and Nas — also clad in sleek suits, as were the backing band and DJs Young Guru and Just Blaze — to string together a series of songs from their debut albums — “Reasonable Doubt” and “Illmatic,” respectively. Those two projects, along with the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ready to Die,” initiated a renaissance for the New York hip-hop scene in the mid-1990s. Nas kicked things off with “The World Is Yours” and Jay jumped on the track with a verse of his from “Dead Presidents,” which sampled the former song and at one point in their careers served as a point of a contention among a greater feud. Then Nas teed things up for Jay again as his “ N.Y. State of Mind” made way for “Bring It on.”
While the entire show was a trip down memory lane for Jay and his diehard fans, the rapper continues to be as shrewd with his decisions as he is with his rhymes. Each hour of his two-hour plus set featured a topical new freestyle. Between “Some How Some Way” and “So Ambitious,” Jay took the time to eulogize the late Nipsey Hussle.
“Gentrify your own hood before these people do it/ Claim eminent domain and have your people move in/ That’s a small glimpse into what Nipsey was doing…. I told Neighborhood Nipsey stay close/ There’s a 100 million dollars on your schedule, lay low/ Tell your team to be on point in the places that they go/ I never dreamed he’d get killed in the place that he calls home.”
Apart from that somber moment, the crowd erupted as Jay went deeper into his catalog (“D’Evils,” “Pump It Up Freestyle,” and “Allure,” just to name a few) and fans chanted “Hova!,” one of his many nicknames. Friends, from Dave Chappelle and Fabolous to basketball greats Jamal Crawford and LeBron James, were seen mouthing lyrics in unison to his songs. The newly renovated Webster Hall was on theme too, with a disco-ball-styled Rocafella logo (Jay’s label) hanging high above the floor; the venue’s entry ways and downstairs bar have been reconfigured and spiffed up, but the iconic main room is largely the same. The setting served Jay’s purpose well: It’s a place to look back while also looking ahead.
Shortly after Nas left the stage, Jay brought on another former foe: Cam’Ron, who joined him for the Harlem rapper’s “Welcome to New York City.” (Later in the show, Cam performed the Diplomats’ “I Really Mean It” with Jim Jones, straining the renovated balcony.) Afterward, addressing the crowd, Jay shouted the two men out while harkening back to their past battles.
We wasted years bickering,” he said. “They not my enemies — they my brothers.”
You can’t rewrite history but you can learn from it, and with Friday night’s retrospective show, Jay and his friends rebranded and celebrated the youthful genius and controversies that put them on these stages in the first place.