Nas and The Weeknd at Wireless, Finsbury Park – review: A hip-hop legend wasted on audience and a modern star who just had to turn up
QB’s finest offers a glimpse of his genius to thousands of millennials – but most had come to see the man with the built-in Auto-Tune
As the unmistakable James Brown sample faded on his opening song, “Get Down”, signalling a brief lull in the otherwise constant hurling of plastic cups of water among a sweltering crowd at an airless Finsbury Park, a broad smile spread across Nas’s face.
“I f***ing love this place,” he said.
If this was not a genuinely held view, it certainly felt like one.
That the most notable member of QB’s finest should be booked for a festival like Wireless was mildly surprising in itself.
While one of the greatest MC’s in hip-hop history unquestionably has the stature for an event of any size, he has not seen sustained mainstream success as a solo artist for around 15 years. With only a fraction of his audience aged 30 or older, and many much younger, inducing the level of widespread enthusiasm he might hope for was never likely to be straightforward.
The opening part of his set was built around the timeless masterpiece that is his debut album, Illmatic, from the urgent yet transcendent “New York State of Mind” through the breezy nihilism of “Life’s a B*tch”.
Inspired by Scarface, possibly the hip-hop’s most beloved movie, “The World Is Yours” seemed to retain a touch more resonance, Nas’s labyrinthine lyrics combining perfectly with a beat that is quintessentially Pete Rock.
While it will never rank among the most critically acclaimed of his singles, the instantly recognisable Lauryn Hill vocals on “If I Ruled the World” contributed to what was predictably one of the rapper’s most well-received numbers on the night.
There was a return to Illmatic with the jump-up classic “Half-Time”, before a version of “Ain't Hard to Tell” in which the key sample was expanded to feature an interpolation of Michael Jackson's “Human Nature” that was understandable, if unnecessary.
Damian Marley’s introduction to the stage provided a universally welcome surprise, injecting new energy into renditions of two of the pair's biggest releases off their joint album, Distant Relative, before ambling back off stage.
The energy remained during the relentless “Made You Look”, the crowd’s exuberance reflected in an increased flurry of water-hurling.
Following the Mobb Deep legend’s untimely death a few weeks ago, it was inevitable Nas would honour his fellow former Queensbridge resident, collaborator and friend, Prodigy.
If the tribute was heartfelt, the audience’s reaction to the opening verse of “Shook Ones” was possibly the biggest of his set – a reminder that while Nasir Jones’s place in the hip-hop hall of fame is unassailable, he has never really produced an anthem with a similar level of crossover appeal (albeit one largely created, in this case, by its use in an Eminem film).
Perhaps the clearest sign of the imbalance in the age demographics of the crowd came in the muted reception to Live at the Barbeque, the era-defining Main Source joint on which Nas announced his rare talents to the world in that explosive opening verse.
While such indifference may be upsetting for the relatively tiny number of those of us in the crowd dancing like it was still 1991, ecstatic simply to be witnessing a re-enactment of one of the genre’s truly historic moments, it could hardly come as a source of astonishment given most people were probably here to see The Weeknd.
Nevertheless, whether they fully appreciated it or not, the crowd was treated to a final display of the 43-year-old’s extraordinary lyricism and delivery with the climactic “One Mic”.
Unfortunately the headline set was rather hit and miss. The Weeknd offered songs spanning his mixtape days – “for the original XO fans” – to his latest album, Starboy.
Despite having three full albums and three mixtapes to call on, it felt like the Canadian artist — real name Abel Tesfaye — was playing it safe.
Not that this appeared to matter to most of those watching, as they sang along to every word with the man who sounds like he has an Auto-Tune built in to his voice box.
Perhaps it’s to be expected from The Weeknd in 2017, but his hour on stage was spent on somewhat pedestrian songs such as “Rockin’” and show-closer “The Hills”.
While both making decent album tracks, they were unfortunately the soundtrack to hundreds of attendees leaving early to avoid queues at Finsbury Park station.
The energy and mystique that won so many fans isn’t all missing, though: “Often” and “Earned It” displayed Tesfaye’s undeniable vocal talent and ear for a catchy hook, while Six Feet Under proves that while The Weeknd has a formula, he manages to execute it to a pretty high standard.