Hip Hop artist Nas performs with The National Symphony Orchestra
Hip Hop artist Nas performs with The National Symphony Orchestra

It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years since Illmatic, the debut album by Nas that set the gold standard for East Coast hip hop, came out. Actually no, when you see Nas rapping in a tuxedo backed by the National Symphony Orchestra, it’s not that hard to believe. For rock bands like Metallica, doing a classical album or a Grammy performance with Lang Lang is a clear sign of being long past your prime. Classical crossover is a rarer thing in hip hop, but the logic is the same: The Kennedy Center is a long way from Queensbridge, and you don’t get there without attaining elder-statesman status. It’s not like the NSO is inviting Chief Keef on stage anytime soon.

So though the program notes claim that Nas has “remained vital and relevant for nearly 20 years,” well, that’s really not true. In retrospect, when Jay-Z dismissed him for having a “one hot album every 10 year average,” he was being charitable. The two famously feuded for the hip-hop crown, and though they’re friends now, we all know who won that war (if you have any doubts, ask teenagers today if they know who Jay-Z is, and then ask if they know who Nas is). To his credit though, Nas did have the better diss track. (Side note: Jay-Z’s “I showed you your first Tec” line in “Takeover” refers to an incident in D.C. where both rappers were terrified by a mob of angry Washingtonian concertgoers. Go D.C.!)

To whatever degree Nas has remained relevant, though, it’s thanks to Illmatic. Michael Eric Dyson, with whom Nas spoke at a Georgetown panel earlier this week, published a whole book about it. The album remains the pinnacle of its era, a flawless gem that led the way for New York’s hip-hop revival. Unlike the synth-heavy, often cartoonish West Coast G-funk that dominated the early ’90s’ airwaves, East Coast rap came to be distinguished by dense lyrics rife with obscure references and weird Five Percenter arcana, and spare production. Nas didn’t invent the style, but with his gifts for wordplay and observational storytelling, he perfected it. If he never quite lived up to Illmatic again, no one else did either.

But it’s one of those signatures, Illmatic’s spare production, that presents problems for an orchestral adaptation. Given his collaborations with his father, jazz musician Olu Dara, Nas is probably the rapper most amenable to doing a classical concert. But the beats and loops by DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and Large Professor leave little to orchestrate. Tim Davies’ and Derrick Hodge’s instrumentations jazz up the songs with a more cinematic score, throwing in Gershwin-esque phrases just to give the orchestra something to do. But a lot of times there’s nothing to do, so the entire strings section sits still for large chunks of the performance. Even, bizarrely, for the most operatic song of the program, “Hate Me Now,” in which the NSO violins don’t play the violin loop from Carmina Burana that provides the song’s backbeat, which is instead piped in. It doesn’t help that NSO Pops conductor Steven Reineke does a poor job balancing the orchestra, particularly when the horns come in loud and off key.

It’s a good thing no one cares about that stuff because everyone’s just there to see Nas. And on Friday, he was just as excited to be there, if a little confused by the setup. “Is that a cello?” he asked at one point, to the bassist. “I’m intrigued by Bach and Beethoven and all that,” he said, and also observed “we got some real violins here” (that time correctly). Whatever mixed feelings he may have been having about what the Kennedy Center means for his street cred (“I’m more refined now, but don’t get it twisted. It’s all hood.”), he was loving the audience as much as they were loving him. “You all making me high right now, I don’t need no weed,” he said, a remarkable statement given that Illmatic references weed in every single song.

And when he kicked off the opener, “N.Y. State of Mind,” he launched into a high-energy, celebratory set. This wasn’t the hungry teenager who wrote the lines but a self-assured adult reliving and relishing them. The upbeat delivery didn’t always make sense: Even the “Go to hell to the foul cop who shot Garcia” line from “Halftime” sounded more euphoric than angry. And there were a few editorial changes. He worked in an Obama shout out for “The World Is Yours.” He also took out the “faggot” line in “Halftime,” so apparently Nas hasn’t signed on to Lord Jamar’s “keep hip hop homophobic” crusade.

If there was anything to complain about, it was the set’s length: less than 90 minutes, and with tickets going for up to $125, that’s not a lot for your money. But Illmatic was a famously short album, short enough that Nas could perform the whole thing and still have to fill time with his few other, non-Illmatic hits including “If I Ruled the World” (minus Lauryn Hill, who comes to the Kennedy Center April 5), “Hate Me Now” (minus P. Diddy), and “I Can” (minus the cute kids). No “Oochie Wally” though, sadly.

Nas also lends the Kennedy Center the name for its One Mic hip hop festival, which, if this show is any indication, is at least temporarily attracting a new crowd to the great marble shoebox. But given its very ’90s headliners (Nas, Hill, Talib Kweli), “new” is relative: younger than typical NSO concerts, but not that much younger. It wasn’t just Nas: There were a lot of 30- and 40-something hip-hop heads reliving their glory days, too. “This is the hip-hop middle class,” said the guy in front of me, gazing at the crowd of paunchy, balding dudes in suits and sneakers. He shrugged. “It’s not that bad.”

Nas performs with the NSO again tonight at 8:00 pm at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. Sold Out.

Photo: Scott Suchman