Street dreams

One mic

I’ve always been fascinated how hearing a song can bring you directly back to how things were during a particular time in your life. When Nas performed “One Mic” to finish out his set at the MLB Fan Cave last Wednesday, I was brought back to January 2005: It was 11:30 at night, I had just woken up, and I was listening to Nas in the living room of my new apartment while mentally gearing up to get on the 12:30 a.m. bus from New Jersey to New York City.

I’ve talked about it here before: To get my foot in the door at the web site I work for, I spent a year in an overnight position where my primary duties were to stay awake and update the site when Jason Giambi issued statements of apology at 4 a.m. I’d get home from work at about 10:30 a.m., go to bed around noon, wake up 11 hours later and feel like I hadn’t slept at all.

Around that time, after years of listening to primarily rock music, I’d started to give hip-hop a try. At first, it was because I found it helped my running. But soon, I was listening all the time, especially when I determined I needed an edge to get onto that bus with the fiends and grave shifters.

Life = goodMy college roommate had often played Nas MP3s on good old Napster, primarily “If I Ruled The World,” and I sort of dug it even though the only rap I was into back then was Eminem. Recalling that, I went to Best Buy and picked up Illmatic and Stillmatic, and the starkness and grittiness appealed to me. Nas claimed to never sleep because sleep is the cousin of death, a perfect anthem for a guy keeping a vampire’s hours.

After my alarm got me up, I’d make some green tea, put on “NY State of Mind” or “One Mic” and wait until the last possible minute to go down for the bus. On the 1 a.m. subway to 14th street, I’d cue up Illmatic in my headphones and make sure to avoid eye contact with anyone, lest the wrong person mistake my tired eyes for a sideways look.

Making that trip every night, I saw some weird things, grew up a bit. There were the drug dealers pestering me nearly every night, and the prostitute who claimed I would help “put her daughter through Harvard.” And there was that time some guy with whiskey on his breath put me in a headlock for no reason, shrieking that I didn’t love him, until I was able to shove him away.

After about a year, they shifted me from the overnight to a shift that ended between 2-4 a.m., which I could easily handle in comparison. My final graveyard shift, I picked up some excellent fish tacos at an upscale diner near my office and truly relaxed for the first time in months.

To this day, I credit Nas’ albums for helping me maintain the hard edge I needed to get through that surreal nocturnal year. Basically, whatever gets you through the night.

*****

Eight years later, I work primarily day shifts, and when I found out that Nas was going to perform at the Fan Cave, which I have access to through my job, it seemed a good time to make my first visit, kind of like a full circle thing. A beneficent coworker got my name on the right list, and I made my way from Jersey through 100-degree temperatures and driving rain to stake out a spot behind the stage.

Word to Bobby JonesNever on schedule but always on time, Nas arrived on the scene about an hour later in a Mets hat and jersey with “Jones” on the back, presumably customized with his own name, though I’d like to think he was paying tribute to Bobby Jones’ one-hitter against the Giants in the 2000 playoffs.

Based on what other artists have done at the Fan Cave, I figured Nas would do the singles off the new album, dust off a couple classics and call it a day. He far exceeded my expectations, performing half of Illmatic, four songs off Life is Good, and a variety of Nas staples that included personal favorites “Made You Look,” “Hip-Hop is Dead” and “One Mic.” I wouldn’t have minded hearing “Street Dreams” or “Halftime,” but he spent an hour on stage and beggars can’t be choosers.

Besides the excellent song selection, Nas seemed energized as a performer, even after what I’d imagine was a whirlwind couple days promoting the album. I’d previously seen him live and was surprised to find myself somewhat underwhelmed, like he was merely going through the paces. But he looked and sounded incredibly sharp at the Fan Cave, even while describing deeply personal moments in his recent history.

When I heard Nas had titled his album Life is Good and saw him on the cover holding his ex-wife’s wedding dress, I assumed the CD would have an acerbic tone. That couldn’t have been farther off; Nas is as nimble with wordplay as ever, but he sounds far more upbeat and vital than on his past couple albums, each of which I liked regardless.

ShadesIf Illmatic was destined to be the bar he set way too high even for himself, Life is Good is his way of achieving excellence in a whole new lane. After spending the last decade raging against the government, his nemeses, his past brilliance and the medium of hip-hop itself, Nas finally seems comfortable in his own skin. You’d expect given recent events he’d have a massive chip on his shoulder, and it speaks highly to him that he doesn’t.

And just as Illmatic and Stillmatic matched perfectly where I was at when I started listening to them, Life is Good fits just as well. In a sense, Nas and I are in different spots – he just ended a marriage, while I’m starting that journey in September – but I can still get down with him thematically. Seven years later, I’m finally moving out of that apartment tomorrow where I used to look out the window for that 12:30 a.m. bus. It’s time to move on.

On Life is Good, while learning from his missteps and past experiences, Nas wistfully looks back on the good times, and yet seems more hopeful than ever to consider what might lie ahead.

“Every day I wake up and take a breath is a blessing,” Nas said toward the end of his set. “Life is good.”

As usual, Nas said exactly what I needed to hear.

*****

As a side note, I’d long been curious to get a first-hand look at the Fan Cave, having posted countless stories about the various things that go on there, baseball player visits and whatnot. So before Nas hit the stage, I spent some time exploring.

Caving inThe Fan Cave kind of puts off a TGI Friday’s vibe. There was a bunch of determinedly quirky stuff on the walls – such as 20-odd baseball-themed clocks in the bathroom – a pool table and various board games were strewn around, and the whole place was done up in splashy colors.

The “Cave Dwellers,” reality show contestants of sorts, sat on couches watching baseball games. When the Dodgers tied their game that day, they erupted into exaggerated cheers, drawing amused looks from the people there just to see Nas. The Cage Dwellers all wore gear that represented teams other than the Dodgers; perhaps they’re judged on their enthusiasm?

The reality show aspect of it is a little out there — I don’t actually even know what they’re competing for — but I can’t really knock the Fan Cave in general. I’ve seen it credited with helping to define baseball’s social media efforts, which is a nebulous concept at best. I suspect nobody truly knows what success constitutes in the relatively new anything-goes landscape of social media; just getting the credit is probably enough.

Where the Fan Cave optimizes its value, at least in my opinion, is providing the appearance of access to players in real-life settings. I can’t be alone in wanting more of that sort of thing. If that’s the way it goes – and it does seem like that has been emphasized a little more this year – then it’s a valuable tool unique among professional sports leagues.

And at the very least? Maybe Nas will come back at some point.

Esoteric

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