She charged $85 per ticket. Minimum.
And many expected chaos, a cash-grab, or, at the very least, a Vine-worthy rant.
Instead, Lauryn Hill's performance in Brooklyn at the Music Hall of Williamsburg last night was a powerful reminder of the artist's otherworldly talents as an entertainer. Her impending jail sentence (she will serve three months for evading tax payments on more than $2 million in earnings from 2005-2009) went largely unaddressed, but it gave the night an undercurrent of the dramatic, as the crowd's expectations shifted from wariness to elation—with a side of nostalgia along the way.
Who attends a Lauryn Hill performance in 2013 (and pays $85 for a ticket), a decade-and-a-half after her all-conquering opus The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill? Answering this question is a reminder of just how massive her impact was in the brief window of her pop culture relevance. It started with her show-stopping cover of "Killing Me Softly" on the Fugees' 1996 album The Score, when our junior high teachers dropped knowledge on us about the Roberta Flack original. Three years later, even those teachers were buying her solo debut. Then came her gradual dissolution in a wave of rumors about religious cult figures and eccentric Unplugged performances. And just like that, Lauryn Hill the recording artist disappeared.
The most vocal and visibly excited attendees at the Music Hall last night were women, and Hill's continued connection to long-time fans was very clear throughout the theater. It was a diverse crowd, if trending Caucasian. Some paid $100 at the door for tickets, and cheered loudest for Manhattan during the DJ's borough shout-outs. Most were in their late 20s, the perfect age to have experienced Lauryn Hill mania when she was one of hip-hop's most dominant commercial forces.
The night opened with a DJ set from Q-Tip shortly after 9 P.M., who played a variety of multi-generational hits to an enthusiastic crowd. A girl in a floral-print dress and large glasses told her boyfriend that she'd heard Lauryn might not show, that she'd done that sort of thing before.
But Lauryn's band, punchy and energetic, took the stage shortly after 11. They played her classics at a frenetic tempo, bursting with nervous rock'n'roll energy. The sensuousness of records like "Ex-Factor" and the restrained grooves of tracks like "Everything Is Everything" were replaced by a more confrontational spirit.
This was in large part, it seemed, because of Lauryn herself, who moved in sharp, deliberate motion, thoroughly in command of the stage. When she first appeared, she seemed almost erratic, jabbing her hands up and down at the sound engineer for the band throughout the night, as if conducting the volume shifts herself. She moved forcefully from inside of a baggy, billowing black top, her thin arm clad in a gold bangle. She sported more closely cropped hair than in her heyday, and looked more slight than ever before, but with the harshly confident, efficient movements of someone who has been raising children.
Her lyrics seemed to dance off of her tongue, whether rapped, sung, or both, effortlessly, an unreal display of technique, almost absent-minded muscle memory. But her rapid-fire delivery had an unerring precision. She performed her verses to "How Many Mics" as if scatting, crafting a new melody for each line; as her background singers repeated the song's hook, Hill burst into her own flurry of vocals, moving at a different rhythm; the effect was magical, as the melodies seemed to wrap around each other, and she was greeted by a burst of cheers from the audience.
Hill's latest song, "Neurotic Society (Compulsory Mix)," has received less-than-rave reviews; it's overtly, aggressively anti-establishment. Musically, it is close to the live-wire feel of her current performances, brash and precise, but doesn't congeal into much of an enjoyable song. But there is art to it; there is something very real she wants to communicate, her articulation oblique, lashing out at unclear targets. She performed it live during the encore, before proceeding into a more audience-friendly Bob Marley cover medley. "We needed to hear that!" shouted one fan from the upper balcony, where Hill's son and nephew had also watched on.
Her performance of "Ex-Factor" was a show highlight; afterwards, she dabbed near her eyes with a black cloth. Was she crying? She spoke into the mic, and the illusion evaporated.
It was just sweat. Lauryn Hill's voice was flinty and unbroken.