Rock the exits: Nas & Lauryn Hill lose the audience at Rock The Bells

Published at nowtoronto.com. A condensed version appears in the Sept 15-22 issue of NOW Magazine.

ROCK THE BELLS TOUR with NAS and LAURYN HILL at Molson Amphitheatre, September 9.

RATING: N

By Anupa Mistry

The Toronto stop of the Rock The Bells tour at the Molson Amphitheatre was one of the most poorly planned, half-hearted hip-hop events in recent memory.

Riding on the combined nostalgic star power of headliners Nas and Lauryn Hill, the festival itself seemed like an afterthought. First clue: it was billed as a classic album cabaret - “Nas performs Illmatic” and “Lauryn does The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” - as opposed to the lively, roving all-day format the Rock The Bells franchise is known for.

The fuzzy Wild Style sample that opens 1994’s Illmatic cued DJ Premier, who strolled on stage to hype up Nas’ entrance. The rapper, forever ’90s in baggies and Timberlands, opened with N.Y. State of Mind, which featured the crowd-pleasing lyric flip “Toronto State of Mind.”

Nas’ fortune rests on the exalted legacy of Illmatic, but he still made some attempt to liven up a rote 70-minute set. Accomplice AZ rapped on Life’s a Bitch, legendary Illmatic producers Premier and Pete Rock feigned a showy beat battle, and Nas nodded to the super fans by performing his pre-Illmatic showpiece, Live At The BBQ.

Then the stage went quiet for almost two hours. No DJ or local talent; just closed curtains and a pre-programmed playlist of classic rap cuts. Poor etiquette and complete disregard are the only ways to describe leaving paying fans sitting there, twiddling thumbs or guzzling overpriced beer, while a headlining artist does… whatever, backstage. Earlier this year, Hill’s solo tour was widely panned because of late starts and chaotic performances, though I passionately defended the Toronto stop’s reasonable start time and competent rearrangements for another publication.

Finally emerging past the Amphitheatre’s supposed 11 p.m. curfew, Hill hewed closer to Miseducation’s original sound this time, but with a new, anxious, rapid fire pacing that befuddles fans and breaks hearts. She flew through Lost Ones, To Zion and That Thing (Doo Wop), flailing her limbs and spewing unfocused energy, and then walked off stage, leaving her band behind.

Confused, angry, and resigned fans began to stream out en masse and, morale-wise, that’s pretty much where the show ended.

Hill closed the night with some Fugees material and the Nas duet - If I Ruled The World (Imagine That) - to swaths of empty seats.