"Smarten up, Nas." With one line from Takeover, the savage takedown of the Queensbridge native who arguably still held New York's rap throne in 2001, Jay-Z leveled a charge that has been aimed at Nasir Jones throughout his post-Illmatic career. For every presidential move made by his former nemesis, Nas made uneven production choices, stumbled over lyrics live, mumbled his way through interviews, and struggled to stay "on message". First it was Nasty, Nas the Esco to Escobar, then he was Nastradamus, leaving his fan base unsure of which Nas they were getting with each new project.
In a patchy back catalogue of nine albums, only Illmatic reigns as an undisputed classic, marrying razor-sharp storytelling to immaculate production from DJ Premier, Pete Rock and Large Professor, and it was the five-mic perfection of his 1994 debut that Nas returned to at SXSW, backed by Premo and the Soul Brother themselves.
The tone for what would be the closing night of SXSW was set earlier in the week when Nas and his former manager Steve Stoute appeared in conversation, candidly chewing over the details of their careers in music and advertising. With Premier, Pete Rock and AZ in attendance and a carafe of red wine at the ready, Nas was unguarded and willing to touch on everything from fatherhood to life beyond hip hop. And when he took questions from the floor and was asked why he needed to tour with Damian Marley for two years following the release of their Distant Relatives collaboration, he was quick to confirm what many suspected: "I got divorced".
The road-honed confidence Nas gained from this touring stretch was written all over his return to Illmatic, which was performed at Austin's Moody Theatre, a venue that played host to Jay-Z on SXSW Music's opening night and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band just two days before. For the final night, though, it was Nas' house, as the 2700-seater was reimagined as the mean streets of his youth, complete with a steaming subway entrance, street lights, standard issue NYC rubbish bins, and a bus stop tagged up with "RIP Ill Will", a tribute to childhood friend Willie Graham who was shot dead two years before Illmatic was released.
After Illmatic's The Genesis set the scene, complete with Wild Style footage, Premier and Pete Rock took their positions behind two sets of turntables on either side of the stage, their baby photos projected behind them to match the image of Nas as a boy on Illmatic's cover. Then the man himself emerged from the subway station, a bottle of Crystal in hand and the QB chain swinging from his neck, and ripped into a word-perfect reading of his debut.
Premier and Pete Rock cued up their own contributions to the album, introducing them with some of the original records they built the songs from, a format which saw Pete Rock spinning Michael Jackson's Human Nature before its sublime intro made way for It Ain't Hard to Tell. When Nas called for a battle, his two longtime collaborators went toe-to-toe, trading gems from their crates. "Oh, it's like that?" Premier asked, as Pete Rock upped the ante, answering Royce da 5'9"'s Boom with They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.). And with AZ in the building, he followed up his guest feature on Life's a Bitch with The Firm's Phone Tap. All we needed was Q-Tip and Large Professor to make the cypher complete.
Pausing to reflect on the history being made that night, DJ Premier reminisced on his first meeting with the prodigal rapper, telling Nas it was back in 1992. "It was 1991 - I was 16!" Nas shot back, before he launched into his verse from Main Source's Live at the Barbecue.
With Illmatic wrapped up, Nas debuted his new single The Don, taken from his 10th album Life is Good, as an image of the late Heavy D - Pete Rock's cousin - was thrown up behind them. The premiere was followed in quick succession by Stillmatic's One Mic and Hate Me Now from I Am..., before Nas closed out the show with Made You Look taken off 2002's God's Son.
As the trio took to the front of the stage to salute a capacity crowd that had just rhymed back every lyric to every song in the set word-for-word, Nas took stock of their triumphant return to an 18-year-old album that continues to throw shadows over what followed it.
"That was Illmatic. Peace - I love you."
Who: Nas with DJ Premier and Pete Rock - Illmatic
Where: ACL Live at The Moody Theatre, Austin, Texas
When: Saturday 17 March