Rock The Bells: Ms. Lauryn Hill
Saturday, September 3
Better than: Lauryn Hill’s performance at Rock the Bells last year.
Creating a classic album is a double-edged sword. Fans expect its songs to be performed the same way in perpetuity, regardless of how the artist’s musical and personal state have altered since recording. This is just one of the trials that has plagued Lauryn Hill’s career since her debut The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill came out in 1998.
To say that Hill has changed over the years is an understatement; only a husk of the girl next door from New Jersey, whose lyrical dexterity breezed effortlessly between sweet harmonies and a venomous flow that could put any male emcee to shame, remains. This can be chalked up in part to the passage of time; Miseducation was released over a decade ago. (The inspiration behind the heartfelt “To Zion” is now a teenager.) Despite the overwhelming evidence—being notoriously late for concerts, garish makeup, tiffs with former Fugees members, that on-again-off-again relationship with Marley scion Rohan—that they should maybe raise the white flag, loyalists remain steadfast that the singer/rapper will one day regain her former glory. The realist in me knows that this is a pipe dream, especially after witnessing firsthand her frenetic and off-key live performance at Rock the Bells 2010, but color me hip-hop optimistic; I (desperately) wanted to give the beleaguered artist another chance at redemption this year.
After catching formidable sets from hip-hop elders Mobb Deep and Erykah Badu, as well as a set from buzzy newcomers Fashawn, Blu & Exile, the artist billed as “Ms. Lauryn Hill” took the stage. (She, notably, started near her scheduled set time.) As promised, she performed the majority of Miseduction in tracklist order against a projection that flashed Technicolor hues, nature-inspired kaleidoscopic images and other eye candy. To the crowd’s dismay, most of the songs were rendered completely unrecognizable by experimental, uptempo arrangements; these sorts of revamps have been the norm for her live shows of late, and it’s unclear whether she’s reworking her songs in such a way because she can’t perform her old repertoire or simply because she chooses not to.
Hill’s flow throughout was awkwardly fast, making her sound as if she were rushing to finish and catch the next ferry out of Dodge. A mystical flute that could have summoned Enya introduced what used to be the banger “Fu-Gee-La,” while the once-irresistible “Doo Wop (That Thing)” was given a choppy staccato makeover. The revamps proved so distracting that they took away from the fact that Hill’s voice actually sounded decent on occasion. Groans and snickers littered the audience; during her Speedy Gonzalez version of “Ex-Factor,” a beer can was chucked toward the stage and hit me in the leg. We all manifest our anger differently, I suppose.
The set’s saving grace came from a very unexpected source. Fellow Fugees member Pras—who has had a notoriously strained relationship with Hill for years—jumped on stage at the end and goaded her to perform cuts from the band’s 1996 album The Score. “This is how Fugees do it. They just show up!” Hill proclaimed, clearly not thrilled. Nostalgia swept over the crowd while the pair reprised quasi-identifiable renditions of “Ready or Not” and “Killing Me Softly With His Song” somewhat mitigating the past hour’s frustration and confusion. In that brief moment, the crowd got to see some semblance of the old Lauryn Hill.
Critical bias: “Ex-Factor” is still my favorite breakup song, even after the beer-throwing incident.
Overheard: “Get me off this island!”—concertgoer lamenting the hour-plus wait to board the ferry and leave following the show.
Random notebook dump: On a scale of plausible to Detox coming out, what are the chances of a full Fugees reunion in our lifetime?
Doo Wop (That Thing)
When It Hurts So Bad
I Used To Love Him
Forgive Them Father
Everything Is Everything
Ready or Not
Killing Me Softly