Lauryn Hill's Backing Band Looked Lost Last Night

Lauryn Hill (photographed in 2012)
Lauryn Hill (photographed in 2012)

Ms. Lauryn Hill
Belasco Theatre
March 2, 2016

When Lauryn Hill — or rather, Ms. Lauryn Hill, as she's professionally known — starts singing her version of Nina Simone's "Feeling Good" at 47 minutes past midnight in downtown Los Angeles, it is literally a new dawn and a new day. But it's not a new life.

The story of Ms. Hill is one we have become too familiar with — the prodigious, undeniable talent whose potential was thwarted by a crippling cocktail of narcissism, self-sabotage and a chronically poor sense of time-keeping. She's refused to do interviews for years now, so the Internet can only celebrate one of the strongest forces of the ’90s with thinkpieces. They praise Ms. Hill as the singer and MC who inspired artists ranging from Amy Winehouse and Adele to Talib Kweli and The Weeknd. They also beg that we abandon any notion of a sequel to 1998’s seminal The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (a release only followed by a 2002 MTV Unplugged album) and a return to form.

Most recently, Ms. Hill contributed songs to the Nina Simone documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? — including "Feeling Good." While the two women wound up in very different places, Ms Hill's generational voice, combined with her self-inflicted troubles (notably $1.8 million worth of tax evasion that led her to six months of incarceration) suggest that there are uncanny parallels between her and her forebear.

Even in advance of last night's one-off performance, more trouble seemed to be brewing. Ms. Hill was a no-show at the Grammys; she was due to perform with The Weeknd, but her people now deny it was confirmed. Instead, she made an unnecessary appearance at the Oscars and belatedly paired with The Weeknd on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon. It's no surprise that The Weeknd later praised the performance as one of his greatest achievements. There are parallels between The Weeknd and Ms. Hill, too — both artists share a tendency toward hateful dispositions that renders them hard to love at times. The difference is that while The Weeknd often gets a pass for brooding machismo, Ms. Hill has been the subject of ridicule throughout her career.

Last night, unfortunately, the criticisms had merit. It was a shambles of an evening, with few glimmers of raw inspiration. “Ms Hill is already in the building!” assured her warm-up DJ at 10:30 p.m., spinning ’90s hits from Dr. Dre and Chaka Demus. “Get ready for some Fugees material! Get ready for some Miseducation material!”

When Ms. Hill appeared just before 11 p.m. with her full band and backing singers, she donned an acoustic guitar and sat at the front of the stage, shielded from view. She stretched out numbers such as "Freedom Time" and "I Gotta Find Peace of Mind" for 10 minutes apiece. The room fell silent between songs, as she gave live feedback to her band, as though they were in soundcheck. The band looked lost — stressed, even. At times, they were clearly at sea; the jams went nowhere, the confusion grew.

Ms. Hill's instructions became more verbose and erratic. Forty minutes in, she began to conduct a sped-up version of her anthem "Ex-Factor." Many of the night's versions, including fan favorites "Final Hour" and "Everything Is Everything," were oddly accelerated yet elongated at the same time. "Ex-Factor" unfolded over 11 minutes and culminated in random scatting. The lyrics "It could all be so simple/But you'd rather make it hard" seemed all too apt.

The biggest roars came almost an hour into her set, with "Lost Ones" and Fugees track "How Many Mics." When Ms. Hill is midflow she's as vital, acerbic and razor-sharp as she always was. “Drop it!” she ordered, then amped the whole room to a frenzy with a straight-up version of "Fu-Gee-La" over live scratching. The song features those golden moments that made Ms. Hill the cultural needle-mover she was, with lines that rhymed "Mitsubishi" with "sushi." One woman in front of me captured it on video and immediately messaged it to her dad, as if to prove that timeless connection between generations old and new.

At exactly midnight, when the intro to "Ready or Not" kicked in and Ms. Hill asserted, "I play my enemies like a game of chess," it was clear that Ms. Hill, when she's in the mood, can play everyone. She delighted the crowd with a stripped-back rendition of "Killing Me Softly," but then quickly reverted to the god-praising of "Interlude 5" and "Consumerism," then dedicated 20 minutes to a Rastafarian medley of "Forever Loving Jah," "Turn Your Lights Down Low" and "Jammin'" accompanied by flashing red, green and yellow spotlights.

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Frankly, it was all over the shop. Just before 1 a.m., Ms. Hill signaled the end of proceedings by declaring, “You know how it goes,” then proverbially fired "two shots in the atmosphere" while delivering the original mix of her biggest smash, "Doo-Wop (That Thing)." The crowd threw their hands to the sky, with a mix of elation and relief.

When Ms. Hill hits your heart, it's what everyone came for, but she misses far too often. She seems confined to a past she doesn't quite want to remember. To quote The Weeknd on that joint Jimmy Fallon appearance: "I know she's capable of anything, it's riveting/But when you wake up she's always gone, gone, gone."

[Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described this as the first date of a tour. We regret the error.]


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