Music Review

At Rock the Bells, Lauryn Hill offers too little -- way too late

The annual hip-hop mega-festival Rock The Bells hit Merriweather Post Pavilion on Sunday featuring performances by Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest and - eventually - Lauryn Hill and Snoop Dogg.
By David Malitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Hip-hop may very well be the definitive American music genre, and this year's edition of the Rock the Bells mega-festival at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Sunday looked to stake that claim the old-fashioned way -- with a blatant, nostalgia-driven cash in. Some tickets cost upwards of $150, and there were VIP packages that got you preferred parking, souvenirs and artist meet-and-greets. Most tellingly, the lineup was a who's who of pre-Internet stars set to perform classic albums that most audience members probably first purchased on cassette. But if reaching middle age means becoming more responsible and reliable, a few of the day's performers didn't get that particular memo. Apparently it was the same memo that had the set times, too.

Okay, so everyone advertised did perform. But it sure was a nail-biter. Lauryn Hill, the eccentric erstwhile Fugee who has mostly stayed out of sight since her lone solo album, 1998's still-scintillating R&B masterpiece "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," was clearly the lineup's chief curiosity. When it comes to her behavior over the past decade there's been no rumor too bizarre to believe. Sunday's rumor was a doozy, and it was true -- she really was three hours late to the stage because she was getting a manicure-pedicure. Suddenly, the attempt by her former band mate Wyclef Jean to become president of Haiti doesn't seem quite so self-centered.

As her 4:30 start time approached, the elaborate stage plot was ready to go. And then . . . nothing. A 10-minute wait became a half-hour, which became a full hour. Scattered heckles became heavy boos as the stage was broken down at 5:30. Meanwhile, on the festival's side stage, 22-year-old upstart Wiz Khalifa broke no new ground with his marijuana-based raps but had a few thousand people singing and puffing along to tracks from his latest mix tape, "Kush and Orange Juice." His charisma currently laps his skill on the microphone, but if Rock the Bells continues he'll be a featured act sooner rather than later.

Back at the pavilion main stage, the waiting game continued. After a staggering two hours of silence A Tribe Called Quest hit the stage to the rabid delight of festival-goers dying to hear, well, anything. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg stormed through the majority of the bass-heavy boomers from "Midnight Marauders" in addition to hits such as "Can I Kick It" and "Bonita Applebum." Instant-party starter Busta Rhymes emerged for "Oh My God," and Q-Tip further upped the showmanship ante by stripping down to just a T-shirt and boxers while performing nearly 20 rows into the crowd. It was a much-needed shot in the arm.

Her toenails apparently dry, Lauryn Hill was finally next, but she probably shouldn't have bothered. The performance was a messy rush through highlights from "Miseducation," but they were hardly recognizable due to her hoarse voice, speedy delivery and clunky, overstuffed arrangements. Hill wasn't lacking for energy, just focus. The feedback on her microphone was ear-splitting; special guest Nas came out for a 45-second cameo, and his microphone wasn't working for half of it. After 20 minutes she departed to an equal mix of cheers and boos, seemingly oblivious as to why anyone might be upset.

Wu-Tang Clan erased most of that bad taste and were the clear winners of the evening with an hour-long set that was supposed to be a run-through of "Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers." The performance barely resembled the group's 1993 classic, but it was a whirlwind of well-executed gang-rapping just the same. Not only was every single living member of the Clan accounted for -- a rarity on the level of a complete assembly of the Justice League of America -- but Inspectah Deck performed despite his mother dying earlier in the day. After Hill's shenanigans, the crowd was especially appreciative.

With nine members onstage (Ol' Dirty Bastard's son filled in for his deceased dad), things sometimes teetered on the brink of chaos, but stayed under control thanks to the Clan's perfect adherence to their roles. Method Man was the ringleader; Raekwon, Ghostface and GZA the most skilled verse-spitters; RZA the proud-looking papa at the back of the stage; Inspectah Deck doing underrated yeoman's work; U-God, Masta Killa and Cappadonna providing backup.

As headliner Snoop Dogg's stage props were assembled -- that would be a large video screen and a park bench covered in 40s in brown paper bags -- and the clock began ticking toward the venue's 11 p.m. curfew, the chatter started again. As a general rule of thumb, chatter at hip-hop shows is not a good thing. Where's Snoop? He was in New York performing at a Michael Jackson tribute show earlier in the day and at 10:45 p.m. was nowhere to be seen. Boos, again.

He did finally emerge, wearing what seemed to be your grandmother's old kitchen tablecloth and performed a truncated version of his iconic gangsta rap album "Doggystyle." Snoop has become such a cartoon character in recent years -- reality shows, Katy Perry cameos and lots and lots of weed -- that it was a bit bizarre to see him revisit his thug persona. He mostly stayed true to character, never smiling -- maybe he was too focused reading his lyrics off teleprompters -- but his listless performance gave off the vibe that he'd rather be somewhere else. Like, New York. Snoop drawled over the atomic G-funk of "What's My Name?" as the house lights went on -- the venue's not-so-subtle way of saying, "It's time for you to go now." It's hard to think Snoop minded too much.

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