The Disorientation of Lauryn Hill

Wherein a volatile r&b superstar wrestles a hostile crowd to the ground

You'd have had an easier time breaking into prison than infiltrating Lauryn Hill's free show in Brooklyn last Monday night. For one thing, prisons have fewer cops. By the time the show started at 7:30 p.m., police officers had cordoned off seemingly 10 square city blocks surrounding Wingate Field, bluntly batting off hundreds of aghast fans clutching folding chairs and clamoring desperately for some magical excuse. I know Lauryn! I'm with the press! I live here!

It was a glorious clusterfuck sadly apt given its star attraction, the monumentally talented pop-r&b priestess who rose to power with the Fugees (posited as the Future of Rock on the cover of Rolling Stone) and launched her solo career with the resounding Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which hit late-'90s college dormitories like a wrecking ball. She has floundered since, an avalanche of missed opportunity, cruel rumor, and press hysteria, a Whitney Houston/Guns N' Roses hybrid whose shows as of late have reached Cat Power levels of unpleasantry. (Oakland was not amused.) The jilted fans stuck a solid half-mile from Monday night's action groused that it didn't matter; she probably wouldn't show up, and would flame out horrifically after two songs if she did. During a desperate cell-phone chat with a photographer camped out inside Wingate itself, I could clearly hear unshakable Brooklyn Borough Prez Marty Markowitz on the stage Lauryn should've taken already, trying to soothe a savage beast of a crowd that had beat the police barricades but now stood primed for disappointment and disgust.

At about 9:30, a kind colleague having valiantly bashed us through, we enter Wingate Field proper and encounter an ugly, ugly scene. Opening act Sean Kingston—the teenage reggae-lite sensation who sired "Beautiful Girls," the "This Is Why I'm Hot" of summer 2007—wrapped it up an hour ago, heroically stretching out his show to the apparent amusement of no one. The dude next to me is now jeering our star attraction in advance. He is impatient. "I hope everyone boos her and after two songs just leaves," he growls. Markowitz, meanwhile, has rematerialized with a rousing, confidence-building introduction: "Her voice may be a little rough. She's just done a ton of shows in Europe." Duly noted. Lauryn's band hits the stage, an unwieldly jazz-funk orchestra that lays into some horn-saturated fanfare. "Oh, so she's the queen now?" growls the Growler. "She's not here. They were lying. They were lying."

The crowd at large shares the Growler's disaffection, as Lauryn's DJ/hype man now discovers.

DJ: "How y'all doin' tonight?!"

Crowd: [Silent, simmering rage.]

DJ: "Brooklyn! Get your hands up!"

Crowd: [Does not get hands up.]

Lauryn appears.

With a fierce, rusty shock Afro, she looks like funk diva Betty Davis, and looks like Betty Davis sounds. Rough. Like trouble. The band rushes headlong into a violent, jumbled, almost aggro-gospel number, mingling backing chants with Lauryn's malicious, inarticulate rasp. Her voice is shot to hell, and she shows it no mercy, not so much singing as screaming.

After 10 minutes of this, she stops to assess the situation. "Where Brooklyn at?" she asks. Brooklyn is at wit's end. "What took you so long?" demands one voice. "Sing something we know!" thunders another.

Lauryn: "We gonna do some new things!"

Crowd: "Uh-uh!"

Lauryn [hurriedly]: "And we gonna do some old things!"

Crowd: "Yeahhhhhh!"

Lauryn then launches into an old thing that sounds new, as in unfamiliar, as in undesirable, as in uh-uh. To an extent, it's "Lost Ones," a seething, precise Miseducation kiss-off now fed through her band's muddy, cacophonous war machine, a thrashing monolith that disregards swing and heads straight for vaporize. Lauryn's voice is a breathless bluster, endlessly repeating the song's hook—"You might win some, but you just lost one"—like a nervous mantra. It's angry, vicious, unpleasant by design. "It makes my throat hurt," notes my sympathetic companion. The crowd ain't having it. People are leaving. A lot of people.

Song ends. Wan applause. Lights go down. Twenty seconds pass. Crowd stirs anxiously. Several teenage girls behind me start exuberantly singing "Killing Me Softly," a big hit for the Fugees. The crowd applauds that. "Louder!" someone shouts. No movement onstage. This show is over.

Except it's not. It's just begun. It will go on for another two hours. Rumble on. Drag on. Toward redemption. The lights go back up, and Lauryn launches into "When It Hurts So Bad" ("When it hurts so bad, why does it feel so good?"), her voice better actually, the band coalescing around a filthy funk riff. Better. Some applause. The girls behind me start singing "Doo Wop (That Thing)," Lauryn's biggest hit. People are still leaving. The Growler is long gone.

"This is a song off Miseducation called 'Final Hour,'" Lauryn announces. "Don't you know it?" This is an honest, frustrated question. Her insistence on mutating five-minute pop hits into 10-minute formless jams is alienating the crowd. (No one likes it when Prince does this, either.)

But first she has to earn a positive reaction from us at all. For a half-hour, this show is absolutely terrifying, a volatile star versus a sweltering, irritated crowd. Apocalypse looms. But Lauryn turns the corner with "Ex-Factor," a bruising, anguished ballad of tough love and self-abuse that earns giddy audience screams upon recognition. "When I try to walk away/You hurt yourself to make me stay/This is crazy," Lauryn wails, sounding not a little crazy herself. It's a song of passion and desperation now sung by someone with plenty of both, who realizes she's losing a crowd that probably assumes she's losing her mind—and maybe she is. But as her vocals dissolve into shrieks and wails, she starts winning us over. "You said you'd die for me/I want you to live for me," she wails at Brooklyn; Brooklyn gets its hands up. She starts chanting either "I want you to live" or "I don't want you to leave," or maybe (probably) both. The audience roars. Triumph.

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