Review: Nas and Wu-Tang Clan bring a NY state of mind to Toronto

NY State of Mind Tour with Wu-Tang Clan and Nas at Budweiser Stage, Sunday, September 4. Rating: NNNN

We’re late into the NY State Of Mind tour stop in Toronto when Wu-Tang Clan ringleader RZA stops the performance to do a census check. He and his squad (minus Method Man) had just been hopping on the Budweiser Stage to the 4th Chamber, the twiney ensemble track from GZA’s Liquid Swordz album. The fans bouncing along in the audience hadn’t been getting as much lift as these rappers who are about as old as hip-hop itself and RZA took the opportunity to shame the younguns.

“How many y’all muthafuckas in here was born in the 1990s? Make some noise,” RZA commands to humble whoops. He then calls on the 80s-born demo who trample the 90s kids with a thunderous roar, but only to be outdone by those from the 70s.

Of course, there was going to be a wide range in age and demographic at the NY State Of Mind show organized by LiveNation. The diverse crowd were sporting baggy and skinny jeans, jerseys and flannels, bringing a real collision of the eras along with a heavy cloud of ganja smoke to an event uniting 90s legends Wu and Nas. The latter’s classic banger from 1994’s Illmatic lends this tour its name.

Nas – who along with RZA was giving the most endurance, energy and enthusiasm – performed hits as recent as Rare but leaned heavily on tracks from his earth-shattering debut, performing classics like Represent, Memory Lane, Halftime, The World Is Yours and It Ain’t Hard To Tell, confidently relying on the audience to chant lyrics like “sleep is the cousin of death” back at him. Wu likewise gave the audience their fill from their 1993 LP, 36 Chambers, performing eight of the album’s dozens tracks, along with hits from Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and their 1997 follow-up Wu-Tang Forever. Busta Rhymes, who was also supposed to bring adrenaline hits like Rhymes Galore to the show, was regrettably missed.

The show hits the nostalgia factor hard, with Nas at one point shouting out all the hip-hop heads in the audience who would have copped his album in the cassette tape days. But it’s not nostalgic in that way that can feel lazy, winning easy affection from the audience with all the “remember when” setups.

The NY State Of Mind tour is lovingly crafted, opening with a mesmerizing montage splashed across the five giant screens on stage that took us back to 90s east coast hip hop with nods to BDP, Big L, Biggie, The Fugees and Big Pun. Those screens, flanked by a DJ and live drummer, created environments throughout the show to enhance the performances. Not that these icons needed that much of an assist. They were in surprisingly rare form, keeping pace with their flows from more than a quarter-century ago.

Raekwon kicked things off with Incarcerated Scarfaces. Naturally clips of Al Pacino playing Scarface would grace the screen behind him. The fun Wu iconography, killer bee graphics and clips from grindhouse martial arts flicks that the group often fetishized would continue to provide the backdrop to songs like Bring Da Ruckus and Duel Of The Iron Mics.

Nas had a considerably more rigorous aesthetic to his performances. A screen hanging over the stage read out the F train stop for 21 Street station in his home turf Queensbridge. The other screens behind Nas had him floating gently above Queensbridge midrises as he performed The Message off Stillmatic. A child’s painting of Queensbridge with Malcolm X lit up his performance of Made You Look. Memory Lane is accompanied with archival photos from the community. A showstopping performance of NY State Of Mind that had Nas literally flexing by the end of it ran with clips from Martin Scorsese’s classic Taxi Driver. And the stage was pretty much transformed into a blinding Times Square when Nas gave an emotionally-charged rendition of If I Ruled The World.

The performance, which ran two hours from when Wu first took the stage, had to come to end, as RZA explained, before the 11 o’clock curfew. The show, scheduled to begin at 8 pm, didn’t really get going until 8:45, and audience members were trickling in long after that, probably held back by the monstrous traffic and scramble for parking. Getting to Budweiser Stage during the CNE and a Toronto FC game at BMO Field was a nightmare.

The show ended with Raekwon shouting out the Toronto rap scene. “Y’all got some hot muthafucking heroes in the game,” he said not naming anyone specifically. That sign off came after fiery final performance of Nas’s sombre and rousing One Mic as the entire Wu-Tang Clan stood behind him in solidarity. It was a beautiful communal conclusion to a post-lockdown summer as Nas remixed one of his lines to yell, “we’re stronger now Toronto.”


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