The old saying goes to quit while you’re ahead, but for indelible supporters of Lauryn Hill, arguably hip hop’s greatest female emcee, the hope has always been that somewhere, somehow, L. Boogie will rise again from the ashes. Her reign with the Fugees proved she had talent and charisma, but it was her solo release, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, that made her artistry prolific. The album remains germane to this day, a musical masterpiece balancing poetic diction with aggressive storytelling and classical production techniques. Thus, for over a decade since, fans have longed for Hill to stage a return, bringing her signature marvel of ‘90s era rap back into the limelight. The stage Hill once owned, nevertheless, has lapsed, and, as evidenced this past weekend at Rock The Bells hip hop festival, it inevitably seems better for us all to remember Hill the way she was rather than is.
Over the past 13 years, Hill has remained virtually locked away in whatever world may exist outside of normalcy. The success of “Miseducation” garnered her ten Grammy nominations and five wins—the most of any female artist at that time—plus a #1 debut on the Billboard 200 chart, and a record certified eight times platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America. Following her glory days, Hill removed herself from the public arena, making only rare appearances when she felt so inclined, most notably in the concert documentary, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. She also resurfaced with former Fugee alums for an attempted, yet failed reunion in 2005. During this period, two new tracks were leaked by the group, including “Take It Easy,” a poppy, hip hop gimmick which made it to radio, but found no commercial love. Not surprisingly, the reunion dissolved before it came to fruition (ostensibly due to Hill’s bizarre personality), prompting Pras to say in an interview with AllHipHop.com, “At this point I really think it will take an act of God to change her, because she is that far out there.”
This Saturday, the clouds parted ways for a moment as Hill took the stage with a few less nuances than normal. Her creative renaissance for Rock The Bells on Governor’s Island in New York followed two performances on the West Coast and preceded one final show in D.C. the next day. A handful of the city’s elite celebrity admirers came out for the festival, such as Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, Swizz Beatz, Chris Rock, John Legend, Mary J. Blige, and Jerry Wonder, producer of The Score. The gallery of glitterati stood at the side of the stage showing their love for Ms. Hill, who introduced each individually to the crowd. The surprise flush of superstars, however, may have been the highlight of Hill’s entire set.
Though she performed most of her greatest hits, her voice was ailing, her microphone screeching and her musical arrangements a little cockeyed for a crowd who knew every beat like it came from their own hearts. She began her set with “Lost Ones,” which was sped up so significantly it sounded as even Hill couldn’t keep up with the tempo. Her energy was high, but the creative lean of each song veered more towards rock alternative than hip hop, and the disharmony was noticeable among her unappreciative following. Her performance of “Turn Your Lights Down Low,” a duet with Bob Marley, was one of the more identifiable mixes, and she wrapped the show more solidly than she began with Fugees’ hits like “Ready or Not.” The feedback from the microphone grew more prominent and irritating, nevertheless, and while she has claimed to be like Nina Simone on stage, this weekend she was closer to a star fallen from grace.
Things could have been worse, of course. According to David Malitz’s review of her D.C. performance in the Washington Post blog, Hill was three hours late, forcing fans to wait two hours before A Tribe Called Quest was brought in early as a replacement. The reason for her tardy entrance? She was getting her nails done.
Wrote Malitz, “Her toenails apparently dry, Lauryn Hill was finally next but she probably shouldn’t have bothered. The performance was a messy rush through many of the highlights from “Miseducation,” but were hardly recognizable due to her hoarse voice, speedy delivery and clunky, overstuffed arrangements.”
The LA Times blog gave a slightly better review, but also commented on the “occasionally chaotic and harried” delivery of her songs.
Probably the most anticipated performer of all, a majority of fans who came to Rock The Bells for Hill left feeling dissatisfied by the hundred dollars they spent on the erratic and inferior presentation of their once admirable femcee. Perhaps it’s time for rap’s beloved queen to permanently part ways with her throne.
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– Courtney Garcia