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Music Review

Triumphant Nas rules the world at Rock the Bells festival

Crowd favorite Nas sampled classics as well as cuts off his new album. Crowd favorite Nas sampled classics as well as cuts off his new album. (Robert E. Klein for the Boston Globe)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / July 28, 2008

MANSFIELD - The fragmentation of the music landscape is often cited as one reason that there have been fewer superstar acts in the new millennium. That may be true, but judging by the T-shirts on display at the Rock the Bells festival Saturday at the Comcast Center, when it comes to the big tent of popular music, partisanship still isn't ironclad.

Mixed among those sporting garb shouting out the festival's headliners A Tribe Called Quest and Nas were fans swearing allegiance to, among many others, Wilco, Iron Maiden, Minor Threat, and REO Speedwagon. There were even a few cowboy hats spotted atop the heads of the diverse, all-ages, near-capacity crowd. (There were doubtless more of those at Gillette Stadium at Kenny Chesney's annual keg party. The combination of shows meant missing a few of the early acts thanks to the gridlock that met hip-hop and country fans heading south on Interstate 95.)

It was a treat to see one nation under a groove getting down on a long and sticky but ultimately satisfying day. It was even more gratifying to attend a hip-hop fest that, thanks to the smartly curated line-up, put the focus on beats and rhymes about something other than designer labels, diamonds, and drug pushing. (Although there was plenty of banter devoted to cannabis consumption, which some concertgoers apparently believed had been legalized for the day.)

While he wasn't technically the headliner, Nas owned the day. His penultimate set was a brilliant demonstration of the MC as a singular force of nature. Stoked by the possession of the current No. 1 album in the country, the New York rapper stalked the stage tossing couplets about the state of the union like Molotov cocktails on new tracks like the scathing Fox News takedown "Sly Fox," the hopeful "Black President," and the tough-minded rant about race relations the "[Expletive] (The Slave and the Master)." With relentless energy he also peppered in older classics like the triumphant "If I Ruled the World" and key slices of his justly lauded 1994 debut "Illmatic."

The exodus to beat the traffic began after Nas's set and Q-Tip wanted to put a stop to it. Halfway through A Tribe Called Quest's manic closing set, Tip raced out into the audience hollering, "Where are you going?" Several of those departing instead trailed the rapper like a Pied Piper around the venue as he and cohorts Phife, Jarobi, and Ali Shaheed Muhammed whipped up a frenzy with the jazzy riffs of "Verses From the Abstract" and "Bonita Applebum." Tip preceded his group with a short solo set with help from Mos Def. Tribe drew a more enthusiastic response but Tip's kinetic energy enlivened tunes like "Vivrant Thing."

Mos Def must have been saving his powers for Q-Tip's set. During his own performance, which began with the rapper-actor strolling onstage with a tapestry over his head, Mos mostly crooned instead of actually rapping. He was clearly in good spirits but the crowd wasn't feeling his sung-rap hybrid. He did get necks snapping with "Ms. Fat Booty" and a resounding cheer went up when local legend Edo. G joined in.

Other mainstage highlights of the epic day included De La Soul's jovial but pointed rhymes, including vintage jams like "Me, Myself, and I," Raekwon and Ghostface Killah slaying the crowd with Wu Tang Clan favorites, and court jester Redman holding it down sans partner Method Man, who had other "things to do."

The side stage drew small but loud crowds throughout the day for originator Afrika Bambaataa's quirky dance party, the comic-brainy throwback rhymes of the Cool Kids, and the chilled-out disco of DJ duo Devlin and Darko.

Rock the Bells

With A Tribe Called Quest, Nas, Mos Def, and others

At: the Comcast Center, Saturday

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