Last year, Lauryn Hill managed to do the impossible: make an album consisting of virtually everything that's missing from most popular music as of late. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, her first recording outside the Fugees camp, was as fierce as it was emotionally raw, deep as it was danceable, doling out advice, spiritual affirmations, and life lessons in the form of dynamic soul hits. And as her eight-million-plus album sales imply, she's got a lot of crossover appeal; hers is the kind of disc everyone owns because they need to. My punk girlfriends love her, my intern -- who is a ska-loving 11th-grader -- brings the CD to work every day, and the little Puerto Rican girls who live next door to me sing her songs while roller-skating around the block. What's Hill's magic secret? For one thing, she's got the combination of that bruised-angel voice and lyrics so visceral, it's as though we're right there with her as she goes through a painful breakup or the joys of motherhood. For another, she's the first woman in a long time to so succinctly address the jealousy and manipulation that strong women always encounter. Plus, she's a veritable beacon emanating an inspiring ray of humanity and a positive example that makes for a unique brand of star quality.
Live, she's even better. When I saw her earlier this year at the Chicago stop of her tour, she had a 16-piece band -- backup singers, percussionists, DJs; it was a setup more reminiscent of a '60s soul revue than of any modern rap tour. Despite suffering from a cold, she pranced around in six-inch heels, leather pants, and a poncho for two of the most solid hours of truly entertaining showmanship I've ever witnessed. Performing songs off Miseducation and Fugees hits, she constantly twisted and reinterpreted them stylistically -- a refreshing change of pace from the might-as-well-stay-home-and-listen-to-the-CD feeling most big-venue shows tend to leave me with. Her ballads became reggae dancehall rave-ups; she rapped the choruses instead of singing them, and seamlessly mixed in covers, from Jay-Z's "Hard Knock Life" to the Jackson 5's "ABC." If she's even half as unfadable for her show at Starplex, expect nothing less than the show of the summer.