Ms. Lauryn Hill Revisited

31 Oct

L Boogie bobcut

It was the summer of 2007, news that year for long-suffering fans of the multi talented  Grammy Award winner Lauryn Hill was that she would be recording and putting out new material. Her debut solo recording The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1998 blew away the critics and added to her growing fan base. That album culminating her rise to mega-stardom, stepping out on her own after starting out with the hip-hop hit makers and genre breakers The Fugees. The rumors revolving around her personal life and instances of erratic behavior during that period well documented in the tabloids, besides the release of Mtv Unplugged No.2.0;  the two disc set of earnest but uneven material was underwhelming and underperformed on the charts, besides that she’d been absent from the spotlight making babies while being in an on again off again relationship with Rohan Marley for almost a decade.

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

Mtv Unplugged No.2.0

The MLK Concert Series presenting Miss Lauryn Hill of course had Brooklynites excited and a possible reunion with Wyclef and Pras in the studio was huge in music circles. That abrupt coming together yielded one single from the Refugee Camp but she was back and out on tour in Europe and longtime fans were excited. Many reports of her antics onstage; being late or just a no-show at dates were widely reported. So I’m sure like me many people wanted to see for themselves which Lauryn Hill would be at the show at Wingate Park on the outskirts of Crown Heights in the borough branded as hip to newbies with the onset of gentrification (I have to editorialize I can’t help myself), an opportunity to see an artist of her caliber right in my own backyard was reason enough for me and besides it was free. I was looking forward to it for two weeks and in the midst of a run of days of sweltering 90 plus weather I set out with a liter of water an hour before showtime and met a line a full Brooklyn block and some that snaked around Wingate high school from the park entrance when I arrived.

 Though the heat was oppressive the crowd was in generally good spirits as we inched our way to the gate. Once inside the grounds it was announced that no more would be admitted because the venue was at capacity. Glad to make it in under the wire and a long way from the stage I tried to get the best vantage point possible. There was a buzz of anticipation but I felt anxious like I always do in a crowd this large. Everyone rushed forward when Sean Kingston the opening act took the stage. Kingston had a hit that summer with Beautiful Girls and gave a spectacular amateur performance like the sixteen year old he was. With the crowd settled in; reclining on portable chairs, reminiscing about their Lauryn moments while having water purchased for a dollar a bottle from savvy vendors working the venue. I could describe the atmosphere as subdued as the sun set and brought some relief to the communal. It was a Brooklyn vibe, in attendance fans of all ages had an anecdote that they held dear, feeling obligated to share what made them come out there that day.

Lauryn Yime MagLauryn Harpers

For me what it is –if I had to sum it up– she set herself apart from the prepackaged overt sex object singers who had the same watered down sound from a handful of producers that says more about the production of the track than the singer’s talent. She stood out in every which way; both her look and the music was honest and had an edge. The mere fact that she had gotten to such lofty heights is a testament to her abilities only because at a glance she doesn’t strike you as that person. Lauryn stood out because she rapped and would sing on the same track so effortlessly, the hybrid of both by one artist unheard of then. She wasn’t just one of the best female MCs out there she was one of the best on the mic period. It’s seldom that any artist, male or female, makes the mainstream shift to their brand like Lauryn did. Her impact evident in groundbreaking music videos, film roles and voted one of the most beautiful women in the world gracing magazine covers like Time, Harper’s Bazaar and Rolling Stone. Bringing credibility to the hip-hop game, technically a rap artist winning Album of the Year, unprecedented; touted as a multifaceted artist like Stevie Wonder or Prince and she did not disappoint in her debut disc. So as some grew impatient due to the extended delay, they were well aware of the stories surrounding her recent shows. In the know I got a call from my people backstage that Ms. Hill had finally arrived three hours after the posted showtime. The band immediately took the stage and did a sound check as she was being introduced.

Miss Hill Wingate 2
Lauryn made her entrance in a large ‘fro wig, big frame sunglasses and bulky frilly leather jacket and wool pants with boots which seemed a bit much even going for that seventies chic on a day where as aI stated previously the temperature was in the high nineties. The funk outfit that backed Ms. Hill brought it like the Ike Turner Revue. Rev ups of her solo catalogue interspersed with selections from music legend Bob Marley; the dub funk vibe back and forth proved challenging to the East Flatbush crowd that had waited a few hours for this moment. Taking liberties with the original arrangements of her signature compositions we were treated to a hard-hitting version of Lost Ones that got the show rocking. Similar unconventional renditions of When It Hurts So Bad and Final hour were not tolerated, there was a mass exodus onto the streets with each successive tune. By the time she went into Ex Factor I had gotten close enough to not require assist from the video screen. There is a lot to be said for the power of music; a well crafted song will always affect you with its presentation, with this powerhouse slow jam Lauryn stopped the bleeding, it halted those leaving in their tracks and had them re-think weather to stick around. I could see what probably many couldn’t, that Lauryn had come to proselytize; the Lauryn Hill at that time had her fill of people trying to define her –from the record company to the media to Wyclef—this was her going out of her way to do things on her own terms and how could you not respect that. She was pretty much, this is the real me take it or leave it. Either way it was all right with her because she was going to do this her way. Her defiance on her Mtv Unplugged where a non glam Lauryn made a point to say it wasn’t about the glitz and glamour and that there wasn’t anything wrong with her and she had every right to speak her mind. Reminiscent of Fiona Apple’s “This is all bullshit!” acceptance speech while clutching a coveted moonman, both instances spoke volumes about the objectification and exploitation of women in the music industry and how the very same establishment regard the consumer. Rumors of her insistence on be addressed as Ms. Hill comes off bitchy on soundbites and in gossip columns that goes with the program when it comes to confirming something may be up with Lauryn Hill. The fact of the matter is most female artists make it squarely on looks and not talent, you know who they are because its evident by-product that’s forced down our throats by the labels.

Her voice as raspy as always could not reach certain notes at times during the show, in spite of that Lauryn gave solid covers of Marley’s  Zimbabwe and The First time Ever I Saw Your Face another Roberta Flack classic she nailed. Her encore consisted of Fugees mainstays How Many Mics and Fu-Gee-La, her newest release at the time Lose Yourself was a definite highpoint, along with solo chart toppers Everything is Everything and That Thing (Doo-wop) to close the show. I remember walking home that night knowing there would be some strong opinions on her performance but the reports in the papers and on Mtv News regarding the  backlash was extreme. Many felt betrayed or perhaps Lauryn had simply lost her damn mind. There is a Pop Star manual most artists stick to because that formula generates hits that keeps them on the carts. But when someone like a Lauryn or D’Angelo set themselves apart from the pack because they don’t seem manufactured in an American Idol way it is refreshing. These artists identified with the Neo Soul movement; the avant-garde take on classic rhythm and blues that in the nineties shook up the contemporary black charts. Soul ll Soul and Sade instrumental in the burgeoning sound since the eighties, compared to Hip-hop because followers personalized it making it part of their lifestyle. And when D’Angelo and Maxwell step back and all of a sudden people crown Justin Timberlake  the king of R&B, it’s the same with the female singers in her absence.
“…I wish her heart was still in rhymin.” to quote Kanye (and very few do these days). Mister West and I agree Ms. Hill on her game has no equal, one after the next they step up to try to replace her and as far as I’m concerned they need to keep trying. I dig the track she released at the end of last year Consumerism, lyrically it’s right up there with her best.

The work that was put in by her on soundtrack cuts for the Love Jones Soundtrack, the inevitable Bob Marley duet project Turn Your Lights Down Low and the collabo If I Ruled The World with Nas made it possible for Erykah Badu to fit in nicely at the time instead of not receiving any airplay because there was no category to place Baduizm. Fact is there’s no Alicia Keys to the extent she end up being if Lauryn continues to do her thing, that’s a fact. Keys would have come out and established herself but not gotten the shine she received, let’s just be real. Rihanna by proxy slid into the glam slot nicely, but muscially relegated to a pre pacakged chart run courtesy of producers by number that would’ve run its course like T Pain. Beyoncé would’ve dropped her solo record then quietly went back and played her position as Beyoncé of Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child. In my opinion it was Amy Winehouse who stepped up to fill that gap, had Lauryn still been on the scene Winehouse would have struggled to make it in the States like every British act that graced these shores in the last twenty years from Terence Trent D’arby to Oasis, she’d have been known more as a tabloid mainstay and not lauded during awards season as she was. All talented artists in their own right but lets stick to the facts nothing they’ve done as urgent as what Miss Hill has done by comparison. It is always telling when someone so gifted chooses to stay away for so long. I wish like Marvin or Al Green or Aretha that when the Lauryns and alike are going through what they are going through as individuals that as artists they would be still capable of putting out music but I don’t fault her for it. The perceptions and what is required to be in the industry a lot of the time has little to do with talent but is predicated on looks and sex appeal. An artist can get caught up trying to be that type of performer then end up rejecting it altogether and going in the other direction, an overriding factor in where Lauryn Hill’s career will end up and why I doubt that D’Angelo will release another album.

Illustration by Renaldo Davidson

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