“30 years,” Busta Rhymes growled to thunderous applause near the end of his set at last night’s New York State of Mind Tour at Newark’s Prudential Center. “Leaders of the New School’s first album came out in 1991. I’ve been brothers with Nas and Wu-Tang for 30 years. Camaraderie for 30 years, brotherhood for 30 years, same code of ethics for 30 years … reppin’ this hip-hop shit for real, for 30 years.”
The hip-hop legends performed for a mixed-age crowd that spanned from young millennials to boomers who likely remember buying Leaders of the New School’s first album back in 1991. While standing on the show’s elevated stage, looking over the crowd, RZA, the abbot of the Wu-Tang Clan, introduced the show after an incredible record-scratching exhibition by DJ Scratch. He told the crowd that the New York State of Mind Tour was a reference to New York, and specifically to the Bronx, the birthplace of hip-hop.
The building was so packed that they could have easily filled New York’s Madison Square Garden or Barclays Center. The choice to stop in Newark follows the tour’s trend of going to towns bordering major cities. Clarkston, Michigan, instead of Detroit; Camden, New Jersey, instead of Philly. One could see the choice as a cost-cutting move, but it also spoke to all three artist’s enduring legacies. They could pull fans to the suburbs to see them rock.
During Wu-Tang, Nas, and Busta Rhymes’ roughly two-hour tour through their vast catalogs, there were no signs of generational fracture. Everyone — including 52-year-old Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who RZA announced had extended the show past its 11:00 p.m. curfew — was on the same page. The mayor of the city across the river from Newark should take note.
Wu-Tang opened the show, with RZA individually introducing the eight members who were on the tour like prizefighters taking the ring. Method Man previously said he wasn’t performing on the tour, but he made a surprise appearance later in the night, during “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nothin to Fuck With,” and rocked out for the rest of Wu’s final set. Initially, however, eight members ran through a medley of their extensive catalog. Six Wu members left the stage, which left Rae and Ghost to perform songs from Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, including “Verbal Intercourse,” which was a smooth pathway to bring Nas out.
The show ran in relay-race fashion, with interspersed collaborations being strategically used to bring the next man out. Wu opened the show, then Nas did his set, then Busta Rhymes performed, then Nas again, then Wu-Tang closed. This allowed the audience to get their fill from each act without feeling like any artist upstaged the other. Nas’ initial set was solid, as the weight of beloved songs would have kept the crowd engaged no matter how he performed.
Busta Rhymes has long been respected, but for all the highlights, his showmanship is defined by subtlety. His rambunctious “Scenario” verse was so impactful that he gave the crowd a genuine mic drop, before Spliff Star, ever the ringmaster, announced, “that was then, let me show you now.” The crowd was wound up in anticipation of his tongue-twisting “Look at Me Now” verse, which he performed with precision, before breaking into one-and-a-half performances of “Break Ya Neck.” He knew when to be ferocious and when to use his vocal skills to veer from quiet to loud. It wasn’t just a stamp of prolonged success, but one of a mastered craft.
After Busta’s performance, Nas came out with a reinvigorated set. He wasn’t skipping over words or misplacing lines like in his previous set. He was able to match Busta’s energy during “Hate Me Now” and was clearly dialed in during “Nas Is Like.” At one point, he even gave a short, DJ Khaled-eqsue speech about being a “rare nigga.”
It’s hard to not view Nas’ pickup in energy through the Verzuz prism, where Timbaland and Swizz Beatz have rap legends throwing live volleys back and forth at each other, with each tasked to outdo the other onstage or lose the round. Most rap fans would probably say they preferred Nas’ catalog to Busta’s, but after the latter’s uproarious set, Nas knew he had to follow up and affirm his dominion over the night.
And it didn’t come out of malice, but instead from a sense of mutual respect. All of these men are pushing 50 and were reared during hip-hop’s infancy. Back then, the pipeline to rap stardom often came from wowing people with live performances. Nas’ breakout song is called “Live at the BBQ,” after all. Nowadays, a timid MC can record a song in their bedroom and get signed without ever hitting a stage — which is beautiful, but also omits the rite of passage that Nas rapped about on “Halftime,” which he regrettably didn’t perform last night.
“Back in ’83, I was an MC sparking/But I was too scared to grab the mic’s in the park and/Kick my little raps ’cause I thought niggas wouldn’t understand,” Nas raps on the 1992 single. “And now in every jam, I’m the fucking man.”
These days, rap festivals feel can feel like a cog in the backing-vocal industrial complex. A dwindling number of new acts feel representative of a time when it was understood that “MC means move the crowd,” as Rakim famously noted.
RZA came back onstage following Nas and led the crowd in a recitation of “Come Together,” after marveling about hip-hop’s unitary power. Rae and Ghost then followed up. Curiously, instead of going through their collaborations, they chose their solo tracks, though both performed with great energy. Then, the rest of the Wu came out, marking one of the rare times that all eight living original members were corralled on one stage. Young Dirty Bastard held it down for his late father, ODB, doing his best to embody his dad’s untamed live presence. At times he missed key spots to ad-lib or scream at the crowd, and the average MC might be docked points for that, but the moments seemed true to what the unpredictable ODB would do in the heat of a live performance.
Method Man wasn’t the only surprise appearance of the night: He brought out his partner-in-rhyme and son of New Jersey, Redman, to perform “Blackout.” The moment would have been more exciting only if the newly-licensed skydiver had rapelled from the rafters. Meth called him the 11th member of the Clan, meaning the whole crew was in the building and onstage at the end, when Busta and Nas returned to celebrate the latter’s 49th birthday. Nas then closed the show by going through all three verses of “One Mic,” which he rarely does. Perhaps he was compelled by being around his peers.
How many of today’s MCs will be able to take the stage in 2052 to boast about ripping stages for 30 years? For so many reasons, some not their fault, the number seems dishearteningly low. That’s why last night’s Prudential Center showcase was special. It was the best-case scenario for a trio of acts that started rapping before some of today’s hottest rappers were even born. Hip-hop’s fan base is growing as more fans enter middle age. There’s absolutely a lane for adult contemporary hip-hop, and arena shows for hip-hop icons. But for younger rappers, the task is to develop the catalogs, fan bases, and live shows that keep fans interested 30 years later.