Feb. 16, 2012
Better than: Almost anyone else who had a hit record in 1998 performing it in 2012, probably.
For the last decade, loving Lauryn Hill has been a little like being in an emotionally abusive relationship. You forgive her when she's bratty or messy or mean, you gloss over the ego and the perpetual tardiness, all because when she's happy -- when she's in her element, and you remember how things were at the very beginning -- goddamn is she good to you.
Ms. Hill took the Warfield on a bit of a rollercoaster ride last night. In front of a packed house full of swaying couples, screaming groups of girlfriends, and iPhone videos shot through a haze of purple lights and pot smoke, she stomped and kicked around the stage in metallic high-heeled boots and a leopard-print coat, conducting an eight-person backing band through a halftime show-style medley of the songs that made her a star.
Problem is, with an eight-person band -- including a DJ, thumping bass, guitar, drums, keyboards, and three backup singers -- less than half the songs bore any resemblance to the tight, heart-wrenchingly earnest versions that made them famous to begin with. And not in an "Awesome, she's experimenting with this song" kind of way. It was more of an "I want half these people to get off the stage and let her just sing" type of situation.
She seemed cranky for the first half hour so, like she couldn't quite gain control of the room. A loud, fuzzy version of "Killing Me Softly" was upsetting in a boring way, but the biggest casualty of the evening was "To Zion" -- likely, in part, because the album version of that track is so sweet and sparse and builds so soulfully that it just feels wrong to hear it dragged into a gaudy 20-minute hair-metal-sounding thing in which every band member gets a solo and the bass player gets on his knees and pretends to play with his teeth. Soulful was not the word for this. A little masturbatory, perhaps, for the third song of the night.
It was uphill from there, though. Hill found her groove about halfway through the 90-minute set, commanding the house lights come up so she could see everyone before spitting the opening lines to "Lost Ones" like she'd been holding her breath all night. She followed with the Fugees' "Ooh La La La," by the end of which you could actually see her drawing energy from the crowd.
"Bay Area, are you ready, are you ready, I think you're ready, I think some of you were born ready," she chanted as she paced around the mic stand, dabbing her forehead with a handkerchief and cracking a genuine smile before gliding into "Ready Or Not." She's still one of the most plainly gifted rappers alive; during songs that showcase that -- and last night, it was inside Fugees songs that she appeared the most at home -- she still has the ability to put her audience in something like a trance. So much so that there's a spillover effect after one of these songs has ended, wherein almost anything she says continues to sound like poetry.
"Ladies, take care of yourselves," she said. "Men, take care of yourselves, and take care of your ladies. Everyone, treat your children right."
"Woooooooo," we responded, in a lyrical stupor.
A reprise of "Killing Me Softly," with Hill's urgent vocals now front and center, made up for the earlier attempt. She danced energetically through a couple of Bob Marley covers, then promptly invited her four-year-old daughter (a Marley herself, natch) onto the stage.
"Say 'Thank you for coming to mommy's show,'" Hill instructed, all throatiness and tired laughter, hoisting the kid up to the mic as roughly hundred cell phone cameras went off at once. "Say 'My album will be in stores about 10 years from now.'" At this point, a group of ladies who had gotten their photo taken posing in front of the marquee before the show were just whooping indiscriminately. Even the toughest-looking dudes appeared to be half-melted from the sentiment (or maybe just from swaying too enthusiastically with their lady friends).
By the time Hill hit the first chorus on "Doo Wop (That Thing)" for the last song of her encore, an exalted sense of redemption hung in the air with the pot smoke. She would never wrong us again.