EmptyNas' career has had more ups and downs than a mule tour of the Grand Canyon. He brought his heavy-on-the-conscience lyrics and flow to the Roxy in a free concert sponsored by MySpace to promote his album "Untitled," which was issued Tuesday. The original title was an inappropriate-for-publication word, but it was changed a couple of months ago.
The rapper, hailed as the heir apparent to the hip-hop crown after the death of the Notorious B.I.G. in 1997, had to battle rap purists' attacks that he had sold out after pandering to -- gasp! -- the MTV crowd. Then there was the well-chronicled word war with Jay-Z, who subsequently defused the battle by signing Nas to his current label, Def Jam.
Never at a shortage of words and bravado, Nas opened the 90-minute concert with the white-hot "Be a N***** Too." Backed with a full band that included DJ Green Lantern, two keyboards and solid drum, guitar and bass, each song percolated with well-rounded hip-hop/rock, like on "Hip-hop Is Dead," which borrows the familiar riff from Iron Butterfly's 1967 hit "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida." Nas showed that hip-hop continues to expand despite music nowadays that eschews lyrical enlightenment over simple chants and dances.
Nas, a bit thicker and more tattooed than when he was a strapping 20-year-old, prowled the stage dressed in a white T-shirt over a similarly colored athletic tee, ripped jeans and construction boots, all throwbacks to the late '90s. But Nas kept his knowledge coming out nonstop. "Sly Fox," for example, is a scathing attack on Fox News ("Fox noose," he crowed), which he sees as right-wing America's mouthpiece. Sample lyrics: "Watch what you say/Big Brother is watching."
"Sly Fox" matched well with 1994's "It Ain't Hard to Tell," which points out that not much has changed in terms of black progress. The relentless "Hate Me Now" challenged those who mock his success, and "Street Dreams" again dipped into rock riffs, this time Eurhythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)." Nas then flipped direction with the jazz-tinged "The World Is Yours," into the funky, utopian-themed "If I Ruled the World."
Nas closed the evening with the anthemic "Hero" from the new album and did not return for an encore. But it was a satisfying end that left the audience convinced that its own hero has lost none of his bite and, most important, insight into the black American experience.