“I’m pushing 40, don’t applaud for me, I’m exhausted,” Nas admits disarmingly on his opening number “No Introduction”, and the articulate, provocative 39-year-old New Yorker is in reflective mood for this exuberant gig in Roman Abramovich’s intimate club.
In fact, Life Is Good, his latest record, is quite possibly rap music’s first mid-life crisis album. He even bemoans his own parenting skills, rather affectingly, on “Daughters”, lamenting “One day she’s your little princess/ Next day she’s talking boy business, what is this?”
Although the new record, his tenth, and his finest since the seminal Illmatic (1994), doesn’t lack for anger or expletives, there’s considerably less gangster spiel on it, lyrics such as “I’m like Scarface sniffin’ cocaine” (“NY State of Mind”, which is still rousing highlight tonight) are replaced by “How could I not protect her from this awful phase” on “Daughters”.
After a series of underwhelming album releases, Nas's tangy lyrical sensibilities seem to have been pricked by the recent tribulations in his private life, most notably the messy, public divorce from “Milkshake” singer Kelis and the hefty childcare costs he has to pay for his son, who was born after the couple separated in 2009.
“I shouldn’t even be smiling, I should be angry and depressed/ I been rich longer than I been broke, I confess,” he belts out on the sharp new track “Loco-motive”. Nas is always at his very best when he blends Ice Cube-like venom with Tribe Called Quest inventiveness.
The poet of Queensbridge is also notorious for his high-profile squabbles with rival Jay-Z, and Beyonce’s other half famously mocked Nas on “Takeover”. Would the rapper play the equally vituperative, anti-Jay-Z track “Ether” tonight? No, the once angry MC has matured.
There are demands for it from his adoring crowd, but the rapper bats them off with "I understand your passion, man." In fact, his downbeat, zen-like calm doesn't falter, "One day you're up, the next day you're down" he tells us at one point after a sensational rendition of his 1996 hit "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)".
But for all his on-stage enthusiasm and constant pleas of "I love you London", some of his shout outs are laced with spikiness: "The music industry is dark, man, but you are my light.". You can't imagine Jay-Z uttering this.
A vigorous performance, then, from a likeable and smart performer who has the wits about him to confess "I don't understand how I'm still here."