On Friday night (Feb. 24), the buzz surrounding New York City’s Madison Square Garden was palpable, as fans trekked to the famed arena to witness history. But the highlights throughout the evening were not courtesy of the Knicks; one of the greatest orators to ever hold a mic was holding court. While The Garden’s NBA home team was off extending its winning streak, Nas was busy making plays of his own—putting forth a performance for the ages during his first headlining show at the venue.
The scene outside of MSG foreshadowed the events set to happen inside. The sound of Nas’ songs blaring from passing cars and stationary devices cut through the air, with ticket scalpers ad-libbing the tracks with false promises of good seats at a low cost. Enterprising merchants peddling nutcrackers (a homemade alcoholic elixir) were abundant, each promoting the potency of their $10 beverages. Once inside past the thresholds of security, excitement heightened. A faint blare of music increased to a pounding pulse with each step taken toward the main event.
Shortly after 9 p.m., Nas hit the stage to raucous applause, launching into his performance with his King’s Disease title track as a montage of the album artwork, and other images were emblazoned across the screen. Cycling through half of the tracks from the LP, the vibes skyrocketed when Nas tossed in verses from recent collaborative efforts such as the bonus cut “Spicy.” While a sighting of Fivio Foreign and A$AP Ferg would’ve shaken the room, their absence was far from a sore spot, as the 49-year-old put on a masterclass in the power of stage presence, with no need for relief or reprieve.
While the one-night-only event was centered around Nas’ King’s Disease trilogy, he strayed off script at various points, peppering in fare from his 2021 surprise album Magic. “This story began down the block at Bryant Park” he prefaces his performance of “Death Row East,” an account of the notorious meeting between Death Row Records and his crew at the height of their beef. The celebratory vibes continued as confetti fell from the rafters amid “I’m On Fire” making its way through the speakers.
Red lights emanating from behind, his passion matching that of the colorcast, Nas’ enjoyment was clear to see, as he reveled in the magnitude of the occasion. “NY, I love you,” he would periodically declare, with the crowd reciprocating his appreciation by singing along to every lyric, even the ones he occasionally fumbled himself. While attendees represented all five boroughs and their surrounding areas, nods to his Queensbridge, N.Y. stomping grounds were apt. Montage images—a street sign from Nas’ Vernon Blvd. stomping grounds, a reimagined Mass Appeal bodega, and a map of the borough—added a personal touch to the ambiance. Capitalizing on the mood, the rap star made the Queens-heavy crowd erupt with “Thun,” his latest ode to the area.
Nas was then joined by producer Hit-Boy, who he verbally credited for crafting all the tracks on the King’s Disease and Magic. “I gotta say let me catch my breath,” he toId the crowd, adding, “I gotta bring out my brother. He’s a maniac, he’s a scientist.” The show’s first half was filled with moments that will be crystalized in attendees’ minds. However, the latter portion of the show accounted for the biggest fireworks. There was a tribute to legendary radio DJ Mr. Magic and his Rap Attack show, which ended with a photo of Nas and the late Hip-Hop icon. Diving deep into a nostalgic trip, the hitmaker created the perfect set-up for Mary J. Blige to grace the stage, capping off Esco’s transition from the KD3 cut “Reminisce” into her own 1992 smash, “You Remind Me.”
From there, the formerly-chipped-toothed rhymer took it back to his beginnings atop rap’s elite with a handful of hits from Illmatic and key cuts from his subsequent albums through Stillmatic. “N.Y. State of Mind,” “Represent,” and “Ain’t Hard To Tell” all got the building amped up, but two surprise appearances really got the people going. First, AZ joined Nas for “Life’s a B***h,” delivering his smooth verse in a black Pelle Pelle leather jacket. Then Slick Rick appeared to perform “Hey Young World,” prompting the crowd to sway and sing along while watching the bejeweled legend in awe.
Sending a shout out to late De La Soul member David “Trugoy’ Jolicoeur over the group’s 1989 classic “Buddy,” Nas reemerged with fervor, running through “Hate Me Now” and “Made You Look” before acknowledging his day-one disciples. “If it wasn’t for you, there’d be no me,” he told the crowd. “We put the art first. All that Hollywood sh*t is out of here. Go with the heart first. That’s what I did.”
The mood then shifted to a more contemplative and solemn note, as Nas delivered an intense performance of “One Mic,” nearly coming to tears during the moment, which he used as an acknowledgment of his late mother. “I gotta say something,” he says at the end of the third verse. “My mom worked at that post office across the street [from Madison Square Garden]. And she’s with me tonight.” He continued, speaking to the fans, “Hey man, we did it. Every project, we did it.” With his emotions poured out, Nas attempted to lift spirits with a few more lively hits, including “Oochie Wally” and “Owe Me,” gingerly asking the crowd “Y’all wanna go home?” Of course, a resounding “No” was their response.
Nas’ technical display during the second verse of Illmatic‘s “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park)” was one of the most impressive feats of the evening. Rapping acapella with the breath control and vocal nuance of men half his tenure, the veteran shined. He even accounted for a crescendo, a testament to his ear and excellence. Giving concert-goers a taste of his God’s Son anthem “Get Down,” and wrapping up with his breakout 1996 hit “If Ruled the World (Imagine That),” he thanked those who came out to celebrate his 30-plus years in the game.
Taking a bow and throwing a peace sign before exiting the stage, the Queensbridge poet put on a career-defining performance that all the blunt-heads, fly ladies, and Hip-Hop heads will still talk about for another 30 years.