It’s time to let go of the memory of every less-than-amazing Lauryn Hill concert you’ve been to or heard about. Forget about that time she talked more than she sang or rapped, that show where she ran through her hits as rote, the time her voice didn’t sound quite right and the one when she showed up three hours late.
The New Jersey singer/rapper/actress has been followed by chatter about her erratic, uneven shows for some time. In recent years, fans have gone to see her mostly just to be in her space, to be able to say they’d seen her, never really expecting a dynamic show. That seems to be changing. Hill gave an exceptional two-hour performance at the 9:30 Club on Sunday night, and it seems to be a trend.
Rumors of a fantastic Nov. 27 concert in New York Nov. 27 New York — Hill’s first show since being released from prison after a three-month stint for failure to pay income tax — spread quickly. Her 9:30 Club show was sold out, with a line to get in stretching from the club’s entrance to Howard University Hospital, a couple of blocks away. It was worth the wait — the time spent outside in the cold on Sunday and the many years for her to show a flicker of the greatness that defined her work with hip-hop trio the Fugees and her canonized, lone solo album, 1998’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.”
Once L Boogie took the stage, she kicked off her shoes, showered the audience with compliments (“You’re great, if no one told you today!”) and worked some of her best-known material into beautifully complex arrangements without erasing their most beloved elements. Best of all, her voice sounded rich and strong. She appeared genuinely happy to be performing and was fully present — a big change from her last decade or so of live shows. How good was she? A fire alarm went off about halfway through her set — it was quickly turned off, a false alarm — but no one so much as turned their head toward the venue’s exits.
One of the biggest treats of the night was that the reggae influence heard on “Miseducation” was found throughout the show. “Killing Me Softly with His Song” got a sultry dub treatment, and the lovers’ rock feel of “Ex-Factor” was more pronounced.
Hill was long ago labeled as one of the founding mothers of neo-soul, which is accurate but gives short shrift to her work as an emcee. She seemed eager to remind listeners that she is both a singer and a rapper. On “How Many Mics,” “Fu-Gee-La” and “Ready or Not,” she rapped all of the verses — hers, as well as those of former fellow Fugees Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel. The material never sounded so good. Here’s hoping some enterprising DJ will release a Lauryn-only version of the Fugees’ “The Score.”
After a reprise of “Killing Me Softly,” Hill disappeared but came back for an encore, acoustic guitar in hand. She performed some of her deeper cuts, including “Mr. Intentional,” “Guarding the Gates” and an especially powerful version of “Damnable Heresies,” during which she talked of a “system that doesn’t consider everyone” and sang “I got out” and “I got my freedom” — which held special relevance, considering her ordeal of the past year. The lyrically dense, rapid-fire “Consumerism” was the newest piece Hill offered, but no one minded that she was more focused on reinventing past works — and exorcising the ghosts of strange shows past — than debuting new material.
Hill, who provoked the ire of D.C. fans a few years ago when she delayed a show for hours while getting her fingers and toes done, ended Sunday’s concert by jumping, barefoot, into the crowd for “Doo Wop (That Thing)” — a perfect display of just how connected and grounded Hill is, once again.
Godfrey is a freelance writer.