Don’t Call It A Comeback—More like a Come Forward

In Jamaica the Rastas will remind you that nobody ever goes back—as one Jacob Miller song put it, “forward ever, backward never.” Which suits Ms. Lauryn Hill just fine. As her recent two-night stand at the Brooklyn Bowl demonstrated, she’s all about forward motion even as she remains firmly rooted in great musical legacies of the past. Ever the restless creative spirit, she resists any hint of becoming a nostalgia act. And no matter how much they still idolize L-Boogie circa 1998, even Ms. Hill’s devoutest fans are starting to get used to the idea of forward motion too.  Full Review After The  Jump…

(Via Mass Appeal)

Within the space of seven years, Lauryn progressed from unknown MC to the biggest star in the music business. Her 1998 solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was wildly successful, critically acclaimed, and scathingly raw and personal. She topped all the charts the week of its release and won five Grammys including Album of the Year with a record that flawlessly fused hip-hop and neo-soul as it delved into the breakup of The Fugees (one of the biggest rap groups ever) as well as themes of heartbreak, motherhood, misogyny, racism, relationships, betrayal, and the journey to self-respect.

Despite (or maybe because of?) how hard-hitting that debut was, Lauryn Hill never released another studio album. She eventually turned away from the music industry to raise a family, and her legions of fans heard nothing for a long time but rumors and innuendos, punctuated by strangely tortured live performances. Thanks to the power of her music, her fans always felt an extraordinary connection with her, and they tried to be supportive of her new musical experiments, but more often than not the songs failed to connect. It was clear that she was uninterested in simply playing her hits like they sound on the CD and collecting what would surely be a fat paycheck. Familiar beats, melodies, and flows were completely switched up to the point where her biggest hits became unrecognizable. At some of these concerts Lauryn didn’t seem to want to be there, so you can imagine how the audience felt.

All that seems to have changed in the past year or so. There’s no telling whether it had anything to do with experience teachin wisdom, or with the artist’s release after serving s three-month in prison for federal tax evasion charges—or perhaps that she’s resumed working with Salaam Remi, a musical soothsayer whose link with Lauryn goes all the way back to his career-saving remix of The Fugees’ single “Nappy Heads”—but the fact is that since being set free late last year, Ms. Hill has been on a creative roll. She’s still prone to rework some of her biggest hits in fearlessly adventurous ways, but these new versions sound fresh and exciting, and make conceptual sense. (It’s only right for an artist who has lived 16 years of life needs to find new ways to interpret songs that speak to such specific moments in her life.) Best of all Ms. Hill sounds excited to be performing again. “It’s a joy to reconnect with you again,” she told the adoring crowd last night. And something in her voice told you she meant it.

The feeling of joy was clearly mutual. Monday night’s show at Brooklyn Bowl sold out so quickly (at $75 a pop) that a Sunday night show was added, which was similarly ram-packed and went on for 2 and a half hours. Backed by a bassist, guitarist, keyboardist, DJ, and three backup singers, Lauryn and her band sounded razor-sharp after being on the road for the past several months. Last night’s set was similar to her powerful performance at last February’s Nine Mile Festival in Miami, where she shared the stage with the Marley family and injected plenty of roots, rock, reggae into her set. Reggae was always part of The Fugees’ sonic recipe, and lest we forget, many of the tracks for Miseducation were laid down at Bob Marley’s studio on Hope Road in Kingston, Jamaica. (Hence the line from “Lost Ones”: “I was hopeless now I’m on Hope Road.”)

If anything Lauryn has gone further into her reggae zone since the Nine Mile Fest. “You know what they say about me?” she asked from backstage last night before setting her stiletto heels onto the zebra skin rug spread out on the stage to perform her opening number. “I’m a rebel,” she answered herself, singing now over a funk groove… “Soul Rebel.”

Opening her show with this Wailers/Scratch Perry classic set the tone for an evening that also included a stripped-down acoustic version of “Turn Your Lights Down Low” (which she famously sang as a duet with Bob on the Stephen Marley–helmed remix album Chant Down Babylon) as well as a later set of Marley covers—“Jammin” (with an interpolation of Stevie Wonder’s “Master Blaster”) “Don’t Rock My Boat,” “Is This Love,” and “Could You Be Loved.”

But to be clear, this was not simply a reggae concert by any means. Ms. Hill’s four-piece band (bass, drums, guitar, and keys) plus DJ and backing vocalists shift seamlessly from rock to soul to reggae to ska to Afrobeat—sometimes within a single song. When she spits her first bars of the night, during the song “Everything is Everything” remixed to an African highlife guitar riff, the place exploded with cheers.

For a time in the mid 1990s, Lauryn was arguably one of the two or three best rappers alive, but her rhymes have never sounded more urgent. She literally vibrated with energy while performing, clutching a cloth that she uses to emphasize her words, and occasionally to wipe perspiration. Her rapping is liberated from hip-hop convention now. She’s no longer the only girl in a crew of boys, always ready to strap on her Timbs and show & prove in a cipher—the result is that she’s freed to push the boundaries with her stream-of-concsiousness monologues, revealing equal parts vulnerability and ferocity (ie. humanity). In “The Final Hour” she chanted “You can get the money / you can get the power” with almost manic energy. “Workin’ hard, workin’ hard,” she repeated at breakneck speed, seeming at times to teeter on the verge of madness. “Clean hands,” she would spit, “clean heart,” over and over again, like a priest at an exorcism.

She employed the same sort of revved-up fractured flow on “Lost Ones” which gets remixed into multiple different grooves, layering meaning with each new musical treatment. “Ya might win / might win, might win” Lauryn rapped on this blistering song, which she followed with “Ex Factor,” another of the rawest cuts on Miseducation, which she dedicated to all the ladies in the house before delivering a reggae version of the shimmering teardrop of a song. “Tell me who I have to be to gain some reciprocity,” she sang, but instead of leaving the old question open, she completed the thought by mixing in Peter Tosh‘s existential roots reggae classic  “I Am That I Am” at the end of the song. The final strains of Tosh’s powerful self-affirmation echoed like a yoga mantra, and as the song faded you could almost hear Lauryn exhale.

After pulling up a stool and strapping on her acoustic guitar to perform a set of four or five new songs, Lauryn launched into her Fugees catalog, opening with a rocked-out version of “Zealots” which she broke down into an extended “Don’t let them b-b-b-b-bury me” riff. From there it was on to “Many Many” and “Fugee La” and “Ready or Not,” which found Lauryn in full Nina Simone mode “defecating on the microphone.” Next up was the radio killa “Killing Me Soflly,” which Lauryn performed pretty-much straight up, singing the words made famous by Roberta Flack over the beat from A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebum.” In the context of the night, the song’s topic (the pain that results when one’s personal business gets put into a song) seemed eerily prescient.

The concert was supposed to close with a triumphant rendition of “Doo Wop (That Thing)”—and it was all that and more—but on this night Lauryn announced that her set was merely “the appetizer” because her kids were backstage and they wanted to come out and perform too. Her kids are young teens now, with sagging jeans and “bars” to spit. Their performances were not ready for prime time, but they offered a glimpse of the artist as mom, fussing at one of her sons for letting his jeans sag too low. Now that’s what you call keeping it real. Like the song says, forward ever, backward never.

Postcript: “Full power?” a friend texted me when I told him Lauryn was back/fwd. “Yeah,” I replied. “In a new way but fully realized.”