It's inherently absurd to review two living legends like Nas and Lauryn Hill. They both rest comfortably on the list of artists from the turn of the 21st Century who will be remembered by listeners 50 years from now. We know this, because both artists shied away from certain chart domination at the height of their careers in pursuit of more artistically and personally fulfilling exploits — Nas through music that took on an increasingly pointed political slant, and Hill through a self-imposed media exile and sporadic touring on the strength of her output with The Fugees and her one solo album, released almost 20 years ago — and still their audiences follow.
Bayfront Park was packed to the brim with a crowd in disbelief that they'd witness both headliners in one night. Judging from the t-shirts in the crowd, most people were there to see Lauryn Hill, who, incredibly, has played Miami three times in the past year. She brought her Diaspora Calling! tour to the Fillmore Miami Beach in early December and returned in January for Kaya Fest with the Marley Brothers at Bayfront Park. Nas played 9 Mile Festival in Virginia Key the following month.
This time around they brought along company including Hannibal Buress as an opener. Buress's set was pretty funny, but his jokes didn't translate to the amphitheater setting, and even the biggest laughs were drowned out by lawn chatter and orders placed at drink or food trucks.
A brief video detailing the dozens of charities supported by the tour's ticket sales ran before Nas took the stage shortly after 9 p.m., backed by an 11-piece band including horns. He opened with "Black Republican," off 2006's Hip Hop Is Dead, and the crowd rapped back every word. They continued to do so as they kept up with his set's rapid-fire pace. He didn't sit on any song for too long - even fan favorites were seldom played the entire way through. He ran through classics like "I Can" and "Got Ur Self A Gun," and paid tribute to Michael Jackson by playing some of "Human Nature" with a picture of Jackson as a boy on the jumbo screen behind him before going into "It Ain't Hard to Tell," which samples the classic Thriller track. "I sampled him when I was nobody," said Nas of Jackson.
"Halftime," off what is perhaps the most acclaimed debut album of all time, cementing Nas's legacy at the age of 20, received the most enthusiastic crowd response. Nas could've retired from the booth after Illmatic and he'd still be revered as a living legend.
Lauryn Hill knows all about the power of a single album. Almost 20 years after the release of her solo debut The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, her set relied almost entirely upon it. But to keep the songs alive to their creator over two decades of performance, changes must be made, and rather than placating the crowd with the same tracks they've come to know and love since the late '90s, Hill reworked the songs into fast-paced soul funk jams that recalled Otis Redding's manic set at The Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. "Everything Is Everything" and "Ex-Factor" were only recognizable through lyrics, with Hill flipping the script on every other musical component of the songs.
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"Ya'll are gonna get my bluesy voice tonight," said Hill, after telling the crowd she'd come down with a cold the previous night. She says she felt ill enough to consider cancelling, "but I was like, 'if Miami can come out after a hurricane...'"
She showed no sign of fatigue or slowing down, however. The only indication that she wasn't performing at her full capability came later, when Nas joined her back on stage at the end of the concert for their 1996 collaboration "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)". Hill's cold finally caught up with her as she strained to hit the high notes on the final song. "It wouldn't be right if we didn't," said Hill before launching into the song's melody as Nas hopped back on stage. She makes it sound like a given, but as she showed by noticeably foregoing a reunion with Wyclef when they were both on the same bill last time she played Bayfront, nothing is a given with Lauryn Hill, or Nas for that matter, and the chance to see these two living legends co-headline is unquestionably a gift.