By Josh Herwitt //
It’s hard to beat summer in LA. With longer days and warmer nights, there’s always so much to do in the City of Angels during this time of the year. But part of what makes summers in LA so special are the countless opportunities to see live music and best of all, for free. From the Twilight Concert Series on Thursday nights at the Santa Monica Pier to Saturdays Off the 405 at the Getty Museum, you can catch a show — if not multiple shows — in LA every week from July to September for little to no money.
Right along those lines, KCRW’s Sound in Focus concert series is just another reason why summertime in LA has its advantages. For the past few years, the NPR member station has shown its appreciation for photography by welcoming a wide array of musicians, including indie-rock stalwarts like Portugal. The Man, Band of Skulls, TV on the Radio and Cold War Kids (read our review of their 2015 show here), to what was once unchartered territory as far as concert spaces in LA go. And in many ways, the Annenberg Space for Photography, as a result, has proven to be the perfect location for KCRW to combine its love for music and the arts by offering fans of all ages the chance to explore the museum’s newest exhibit and see well-established artists perform for free with a simple RSVP online.
After last year’s roster, which featured old-school hip-hop group De La Soul and country music legend Dwight Yoakam as headliners, it was somewhat surprising to see Grammy-nominated rapper Nas (born Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones) listed next to psych-folk collective Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and eventually Senegalese singer/guitarist Baaba Maal when the 2016 Sound in Focus lineup dropped last month (Maal’s performance was revealed at a later date). Not because KCRW had booked a hip-hop act for a second straight year, but more that it had booked a hip-hop act of Nas’ stature. You don’t have to look much further than his two million Twitter followers, in stark contrast to Edward Sharpe’s 105,000 and Maal’s 5,750, to understand that. It should go without saying then that Mr. Jones is easily the biggest artist KCRW has ever booked for Sound in Focus in its three years running.
On the other hand though, Nas hasn’t released an album in more than four years. Better yet, it’s been more than three since the Brooklyn native disclosed he had begun work on his 12th studio album, the follow-up to 2012’s Life Is Good. In this day and age of instant gratification, that’s often three years too long to keep fans waiting. With so many options to choose from, it’s becoming harder and harder to remain relevant, even for a hip-hop artist of Nas’ caliber.
But there’s also something to be said for releasing eight straight platinum records, even if Nas doesn’t have any Grammys to go along with them. So, if last Saturday’s show was supposed to be Nas’ reminder to the world that he’s still working and grinding like he always has since the early 90’s, then a whole lot of fans got to hear that message loud and clear after Wild Belle’s opening set.
With the anticipation building, Nas arrived onstage with energy and purpose, immediately diving into his I Am…. anthem “Hate Me Now” that’s almost two decades old at this point. A little bit later, he would end up waxing poetic on “One Mic”, the third single off his 2001 LP Stillmatic that was nominated for an MTV Video Music Award. Yet, more important than the songs Nas chose to perform or the albums he drew from was the postivity he preached to the crowd before calling it a night. At a time of racial and social unrest in the U.S., he imparted optimism and encouraged everyone who stood before him to chase their dreams, whatever they may be. For an emcee who once proclaimed that “hip-hop is dead” at one time, that’s seemingly quite a change in rhetoric.