7:53 am Jan. 3, 20111
In the 12 years since the release of her unanimously acclaimed solo album, Lauryn Hill has drummed up a hefty lot of confusion and head-shaking from fans and critics.
Artistic inactivity, passive-aggressive bickering with her Fugees counterparts, bizarre religious entanglements and a spotty live performance reputation represent a small fraction of the behavior that's made her seem like a lunatic in the public eye.
Hill launched an East Coast tour with six New York dates at small venues: The Music Hall of Williamsburg, the Bowery Ballroom, and a three-night stint at the Blue Note that begins tonight—that has her working a grueling schedule. Her failure to arrive promptly at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, where she kicked off on Tuesday evening (the blizzard had moved her engagement at Hammerstein Ballroom to Feb. 1), should have come as no big surprise: Hill’s earned earned her reputation as a disgruntled diva who’s misplaced a few marbles along the way, and that night a crippling blizzard had just finished dumping almost two feet of snow on the city. It was a miracle she showed at all.
Still, when she teetered onto the stage at a quarter past midnight (the show had been scheduled for 8:30 and no openers had performed), the crowd was angry.
Moments earlier, concertgoers were lobbing drinks at the band and DJ who had become exhausted trying to placate them. Would Hill get a drink-toss to the head?
She began by being mostly unapologetic: Teeth sunk into the hand feeding her (tickets to each of her six sold-out New York shows cost $75; she was rumored in 2008 to have moved into her mother’s house in New Jersey), she pronounced: "All those who aren't happy are always free to go back and ask for a refund … When I hear people complain, I don't know what to tell you."
And: "I personally know I'm worth the wait."
Hackles up, gasping for breath, Hill ended her self-righteous diatribe in the nick of time.
“Let’s start the show with a Bob [Marley] tune,” she directed her band, who began a rendition of “Forever Loving Jah.”
But Hill relaxed into her spot on stage and offered up a strong vocal performance. While she seemed unprepared for the physicality of a live show, mopping sweat from her brow and catching her breath at any free moment, her voice stayed powerful and clear as she belted her way through a set list consisting mostly of material from her 1998 debut solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and former bandmates The Fugees’ The Score. Her rap game was similarly polished: despite her apparent physical exhaustion, she delivered each of Wyclef Jean and Pras’s verses from assorted Fugees tracks, in addition to her own, without a snag. Hill is one of the very few artists whose vocal strength ends up being a crutch for the rickety structure of the rest of the operation.
It was a shame, then, that her pipes were forced to compete with the army of accompaniment she’d brought on stage. They performed excessively embellished versions of her classics, largely stripped of the sounds that initially categorized her as a hip-hop artist.
Some songs were upwards of 10 minutes long and filled with flourishes and instrumental solos that pushed them beyond recognizability, if her voice hadn't been there to guide the way. During a needlessly long electric bass solo at the end of “To Zion,” the song that tells of her 1996 impregnation by Rohan Marley, one irritated onlooker summed up the instrumental bloat:
“This is actually happening,” she said in disbelief. “Bring the DJ back out, because nobody gives a fuck about the bass player.”
She was right: minutes later, Hill and her band performed “Ready Or Not,” sticking closely to the sound of its original recording instead of bogging it down with decoration, and struck on a fresh swell of excitement from the crowd.
Having won back the crowd, Hill now was able to be contrite.
“I deeply apologize for being late,” she said, going on to express her gratitude toward the fans at length.
Hill had fueled rumors in an NPR interview that she's preparing to release new recorded material, so this tour was booked with the feel of a comeback. But no new material was played, which is perhaps the biggest indicator that those rumors were only bait and that Hill maybe just needed a new source of income and publicity.
But if Hill’s impromptu leap back under the spotlight doesn’t lead up to a new album and a full-fledged comeback, it’s not necessarily to her detriment.
If anything, the success of the sold-out, hastily promoted tour of intimate venues has shown that fans are willing to wait years, and then hours more, for the chance to catch Hill performing songs that are 12 and 15 years old. In her half-hearted attempts at being a comeback kid, she’s proven herself a bit washed-up and quite a bit wacky. But she's also proven that the small output of her career so far is classic and resilient enough to matter for a long time.
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