Tucson state of mind: Nas and Wale at The Rialto
The lights of the Rialto Theatre sparkle above as a security guard gropes my pockets and the inside of my thighs. The marquis lettering silhouettes itself in the evening sky, shining down on the line that wraps around the block and back in on itself like an anxious, excited game of snake.
Nick Grant, the opener, is nothing to complain about, but that’s not why everyone is here. It’s not why half of the audience reeks of weed and are wearing “Illmatic" t-shirts. Most aren’t here for Wale either, who puts on a headbanging pop-hip-hop set with songs like “My PYT."
This crowd, their ages ranging from 20-year-olds to middle-aged adults and their partners pumping their fists in the air with vigor, are here to see the one and only self-proclaimed maestro Nasir Jones. Nas, for short. The same Nas that, in 1994, released what many consider one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. Ever.
After an excruciatingly long wait following Wale’s departure, the crowd is growing restless. Shouting is getting louder and more common, the fat vape clouds drifting over baseball caps and sweaty foreheads are growing thin.
Then, without any warning, the stage goes dark. The crowd goes wild. A DJ’s turntables light up with the “Nas” logo in deep purple. The cheering grows in volume, anticipation finally coming to a frenzied climax.
With eardrum-shattering, cardiac arrest-inducing bass, Nas takes the stage surrounded by yellow strobe lights and purple floodlights. Joe Chambers’ “Mind Rain” sampled under heavy drums floats across the restless crowd. Nas looks around, observing the chaotic excitement held back by nothing but a thin metal barrier and a few bouncers.
The set is exquisitely old school, hitting all the classics. Sans Ms. Lauryn Hill, of course. Nas kicks it back to his beginnings but brings it back around with a soul-stirring rendition of “Project Windows” from his 1999 album Nastradamus.
During a hook, Nas collects himself, looks onto the crowd and says, “We all relate to each other.” He’s met with cheers, and he follows up with words on a new project, emphasizing that after a certain number of albums an artist has to make sure their vision is being met.
The set draws to a close with a tribute to the late Prodigy of Mobb Deep. The crowd is satisfied, voices hoarse and ears ringing with pure ecstasy. Nas makes one final bow, a maestro leaving his orchestra.
As I sat on the balcony steps, watching the massive stream of people, my mind was drawn back to the beginning of the set and the first moments Nas stepped on stage:
His mouth opened with the first line of the song, one of the first real lines of the album, the first line that every single soul in the Rialto Theatre knows so well. “Straight out the fuckin’ dungeons of rap, where fake niggas don’t make it back …”