[VIDEO] Lauryn Hill Performs Live In New York, Was It worth The Wait?
By JON CARAMANICA
It was well past 11 on Tuesday night at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, and Ms. Lauryn Hill — maybe the most gifted female rapper in history, one of the most versatile pop talents in recent memory and also one of the great modern celebrity recluses — was nowhere in sight. By the time her D.J. played the third Nicki Minaj song of the night you had to wonder if it was a taunt.
Two fans in the front row hand-wrote signs: “You Just Lost One,” “This Is Insulting.” One of the keyboard players taped a reply on his kit: “I Was on Time.” When Ms. Hill finally took the stage a little after midnight — a few minutes after arriving at the club and getting carried over piles of snow on the street, one witness reported — she was primed for a fight.
“Don’t do that. That’s disrespectful,” she told the fans with the signs, motioning with her finger to the exit at the back of the room, where she suggested they go.
To the crowd she was both thankful and indignantly apologetic. “I spent my entire 20s sacrificing my life to give you love. So when I hear people complain, I don’t know what to tell you,” she said. “I personally know I’m worth the wait.” (Maybe that’s why the D.J. introduced her with the résumé roll call “Rapper! Singer! Producer! Humanitarian!”)
After her first song, a lithe, pretty cover of Bob Marley’s “Forever Loving Jah,” she finally yanked the sign off her keyboard player’s kit, telling him: “You trying to escape the bottles and the cups. Next time you take it, you take it like a man. We in this together, brother.”
Somehow this all came off as genial, the protestations of a performer who, for more than a decade, has been chasing a muse that has led her in almost every direction but forward. Ms. Hill — who of late goes by Ms. Lauryn Hill professionally — is more than a decade removed from her post-Fugees solo debut, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” (Columbia), which earned her five Grammys, including album of the year. Since then she has released one album — “MTV Unplugged No. 2.0” in 2002 — and has made occasional live appearances. (Her first scheduled New York show on this mini-tour, Monday night at the Highline Ballroom, was rescheduled in the aftermath of the blizzard.)
Mostly, though, she has stirred strong feelings, still drawing the sort of intense admiration that, as was clear during the early part of this show, can turn sour when expectations aren’t met. The smattering of boos from the crowd that had begun before she took the stage continued once she arrived, wearing an ornate patchwork caftanlike top and huge gold hoop earrings. “We do the best we can with what we have,” Ms. Hill said. “It’s like getting in shape.”
The hour and a half was a small marathon for both performer and audience, and it gave a glimpse of what Ms. Hill’s future might look like: part idol, part adversary to herself and others. With no new material to share, she split her time roughly evenly between her solo material and songs from her time with the Fugees, one of the most memorable pop rap acts of the 1990s, the unwitting template for the Black Eyed Peas and more.
Behind Ms. Hill was a lot of band crammed onto not a lot of stage: three guitarists, three keyboard players, a bassist, a drummer, a D.J., three backup singers. They were expert, if overwhelming, with the collective seemingly making more noise because it could, not because it should.
Rarely did they hew close to the songs’ original arrangements. “Lost Ones” was beaten into a 1970s rock anthem, belligerent and scraped. “To Zion” was recast in a Motown soul-band style. On “How Many Mics” the assault of guitars choked her, almost obscuring her rapping altogether. “Ready or Not” was the only time she relied heavily on the D.J., who played the original version as Ms. Hill rapped all the verses, her own as well as those of former band mates Wyclef Jean and Pras.
Though Ms. Hill was once known for rapping and singing with equal authority, both skills were a little worse for wear here. There’s a persistent rasp in her singing voice that slashes even her most beautiful passages, like the lithe one at the end of “Zealots,” and her cadences were cluttered and a bit lumpy.
Ms. Hill is 35 now — sometimes during this show, like on the cathartic “When It Hurts So Bad,” she appeared far older; sometimes, as on an invigorated “Ready or Not,” she appeared far younger. And while the new arrangements weren’t always successful, they were confident, as if Ms. Hill were rewriting the old songs, learning new ways to love them or to shake them loose from negative associations. (On “Fu-Gee-La” she was limber, adding even more Caribbean flourishes to those that were there to begin with, though she didn’t mention Teena Marie, who died on Sunday and whose “Ooo La La La” was the basis for that song.)
On most of the numbers Ms. Hill picked out one lyric and worked it over, bending it all sorts of ways. Sometimes it was poignant — “Stayed too long and gave you too much,” she chanted on “Hurt So Bad” — and sometimes it was just a sentence, a set of words to chew on.
Before a slightly constrained version of “Killing Me Softly” near the end of the night, she again thanked the audience — the three-fourths of it that remained, at least, which didn’t include Prince, who left early — for its patience and presumably, its indulgence. “The point of this is so we can give you something full of character and integrity and not compromised at all,” she said. By those measures, if those are the measures that count, it was a success.