Few fit the tortured artist cliché as wholly as Lauryn Hill. Brilliant, outspoken and passionate, her career has been tempestuous and trying. Her solo debut and magnum opus, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was a profoundly personal work centered on love, feminism and spirituality. Her brutal honesty and open vulnerability connected to millions around the world, elevating her to stardom and winning her the Grammy for album of the year in 1999. A hip-hop/soul crossover, the album helped pioneer the neo-soul movement and bring the genre mainstream recognition. Hill alternates between lyrically ferocious, awe-inspiring rhythmic schemes and heart-rending narrative ballads, baring her personal life and pain for the world to see. Lyrics such as “Just as Christ was a superstar, you stupid sir!/ They hail you then nail you no matter who you are/ They’ll make you now then take you down and make you face it/ If you slit the bag open, put your pinky in it and taste it” exemplified its emotive power and continuing relevance. Over the past decade-and-a-half the album has remained a monumental and critically revered work that continues to haunt and define her to this very day.
From her success followed a deeply painful and exceedingly public downward spiral. Alienated by fame, disillusioned with the music industry, exploited for monetary gain and disgusted with the pretentious, paltry form her life had taken, Hill cut ties with the outside world, exiling herself from music and the public eye. From there followed a slew of media-labeled meltdowns, romantic turbulences and erratically inconsistent touring. She repeatedly showed up late (if appearing at all) for her concerts, canceling broad parts of her tour and refusing to grant refunds. Mocked, marginalized and castoff as a has-been, her troubles hit a new low in 2013 when she was prosecuted and imprisoned for tax evasion.
So, after buying my ticket to see her at Brown’s Spring Fling I was (apprehensively) hopeful, but mostly wary. The set started ominously. The crowd waited for over an hour, unsure whether or not to expect an actual appearance. The DJ on stage served us what seemed like a ceaseless barrage of bar mitzvah-esque songs followed by half-hearted bids to love and one-ness. Once he began playing tracks of Miseducation the crowd drew the line, expressing their consternation through collective groans. By the time Hill walked on stage the sun had set and the audience’s excitement had notably dampened. I looked on nervously, unsure of what performance was about to unfold. However, as the concert progressed the more magnetized and fixated I became. The disenchantment broke as I was struck by her sheer stage presence. As the instrumentation started up and the band launched into a newly rendered and highly improvisational version of “Killing Me Softly,” the crowd was instantly reenergized by the overwhelming talent before us. Keeping only the skeletal outlines and minimal foundation of her most well-known hits intact, Hill adapted her life’s work to fit her current passion and musical direction. Backed by a full band, hype man and three additional female vocalists, the concert hailed back to old school R&B, soul, Motown and hip-hop while remaining vitally relevant. She effortlessly fused jazz and rock in a way that was not just curious but natural. Her raps, scats and vocals were supported by the fullness of the band’s sound and filled the entire quad. Although nearly two decades have passed since her initial rise to fame, her voice resonated with the same lucidity and power that it did 20 years ago.
However, what struck me the most was not the sheer aesthetic and auditory quality of her performance but rather its incredible authenticity and substance. I have been to too many concerts where the band had merely regurgitated their songs without any emotion. Having performed the same set dozens of times, bands lose the passion that their music once held and their performance becomes generic. Such tried performativity shared nothing in common with Hill; her every line, chord and refrain held meaning and emotion. Lyrics such as “I wrote these words for everyone/ who struggles in their youth/ who won’t accept deception/ instead of what is truth” from “Everything is Everything” rang potent and true. Passion emanated from her on stage, her body shaking and eyes tearing as she sang.
There stood before us a woman so disillusioned and revolted with the politics, exploitation and superficiality of fame and record labels that she had lost her love for music. She entered into a self-imposed exile, leaving the public eye entirely rather than compromising her authenticity. What we were directly witnessing was the rediscovery and revival of her love for music through a live audience. She was extending her passion to us while reigniting her own. When the encore faded and she exited the stage for the final time I was left awed, inspired and thankful. Despite all the vicissitudes, Ms. Hill is still burning strong.