Hip-hop's biggest tour, Rock the Bells, kicked off its eighth year with more of a festival vibe than ever. The 2011 edition of RTB, which launched yesterday at San Bernardino's San Manuel Ampitheater, featured the addition of the RZA-curated 36 Chambers stage, bringing the total to four stages and meaning, just like at Coachella, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, etc., the non-stop music forced some tough decisions for fans. For example when hot up-and-comer Mac Miller, who had kids packed into the Paid Dues stage, singing along with every word, went up against Erykah Badu performing her brilliant Baduizm album in its entirety.
Still there were unquestioned headliners, and for this year's Rock the Bells, the promise of Lauryn Hill doing the Grammy-winning The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill from start to finish, and Nas doing the same for classic Illmatic, were the main attractions. As Common, who delivered a standout set of his own, mixing some freestlye with his Be album from top to bottom, told Rolling Stone backstage, "Illmatic is the greatest hip-hop album of all time and Miseducation is one of the greatest albums of all time."
Those sentiments are shared by many, setting up some lofty expectations for both artists. Nas played much looser with the whole album idea. Backed by a replica of a New York City brownstone and a sign that said Queensborough Houses, because as he said, "We put the projects on stage so we never forget where we came from," the rapper, joined by Pete Rock, DJ Premier, and AZ, broke the album up into two halves. He took a break for a lengthy interlude that saw Rock and Premier promote their upcoming battle album with a battle, playing some of their most memorable beats. While very entertaining for the crowd, who were already feeling the nostalgia for the Nineties from the lineup and clearly shared Nas' view that these were two of the greatest hip-hop producers of all time, it changed the flow of what was clearly the most anticipated performance of the day, one that musically lived up to those expectations.
Hill, who closed out the night on main stage, took the whole album concept much more literally, turning the stage into a giant classroom and bringing the heaviest multi-media component to the RTB stage in the festival's eight-year history. Among the highlights were video images of fire interspliced with Jim Morrison during "Superstar," a video blackboard, and a tribute to great female soul singers such as Sade during "Final Hour." And musically, Hill, who reportedly was in rehearsals all week for this performance, clearly wanted perfection for the album that changed her career. On multiple occasions she stopped songs after a few notes and restarted them, saying, "Hold on" or "That's not right," and throughout the set she was seen exhorting her large band.
Despite her obvious occasional frustration, Hill showed flashes of Miseducation's brilliance, especially on more relaxed songs like "Doo Wop (That Thing)" and "I Used To Love Him." The performance left little doubt that Hill can quickly achieve the lofty goals she had for bringing the album to the stage and when she does, combined with all of the other elements on Rock The Bells 2011, it will only further enhance RTB's status in the hip-hop world.