Ms. Lauryn Hill South Side Ballroom, Dallas Wednesday, December 10, 2014
Going into last night's show at South Side Ballroom, no one had any clue what to expect from Ms. Lauryn Hill. There's no denying HIll's place as one of the most formative female R&B and hip-hop artists in history, but she's got a spotty past as a performer. Sometimes, she's absolutely flawless. Others, she refuses to perform or unenthusiastically slogs through the set. Earlier legs of Hill's current tour were panned by critics across the globe, especially one disastrous performance in London earlier this year.
Hill had abruptly postponed this very same show once before, it having originally been scheduled for November 14, without apology. When the show rescheduled, the news was almost universally met with some version of, "Here's hoping she shows up on time." The doors to South Side opened at 8:30, and by 10 p.m. people in the audience were clearly wondering where the hell she was.
Before the show started, the DJ notified the crowd that they could expect to hear their favorite material from the artist's time with the Fugees, the incomparable Miseducation of Lauryn Hill record, and songs from her 2001 MTV Unplugged album. But I don't think the audience expected to hear their favorites performed exactly in the way they were.
When Hill took the stage, in a breathtakingly fabulous sequined jacket, she immediately launched into an upbeat, reggae-jazz version of her most enduring hit, "Killing Me Softly." There was an almost palpable disappointment from the audience that she hadn't performed the song in its powerful acoustic glory, but Hill was just getting warmed up.
It's a real shame that Hill is so underrated as a rapper. Just yesterday, Atlanta trap queen Trina said in an interview that she didn't consider Hill to even be a female rapper, a characterization that could not be more wrong. Even after 20 years, Hill has the verbal dexterity and swagger to absolutely fucking kill it on the mic, particularly on "Final Hour." There is likely no other artist that can so seamlessly transition from spitting a rapid-fire verse to vocal runs that rival Aretha Franklin. When she raps "Observe how the queen do," Nicki Minaj and Azealia Banks would do well to take note.
From there, she launched into the expected hits; "Everything Is Everything" was a particularly strong performance, as was "To Zion." In the first half of the set, most notable was Hill's very obvious exuberance and joy for her music. Because of her general disinterest in fame and occasionally unstable stage presence, Hill is cast as this caricature of the brooding black woman, but whether or not any of that is accurate she has a demonstrable love for the music she has created that is infectious.
The evening took a brief political detour in the performance of "Black Rage," a song she released earlier this year via SoundCloud in support of protesters in Ferguson, Missouri. Surprisingly, Hill, who is known for her verbose interludes between songs, didn't have much to say. Maybe she was too sad, the words in the track too accurate to describe the events of the past few weeks. As I listened, I noticed that a man standing to my left was wearing a T-shirt with "I Can't Breathe" printed across the front, in tribute to Eric Garner. It was a powerful moment, one that underscored the pain felt deeply by the black community.
But then, it was back to the upbeat tunes without much transition. Hill did a full set of Bob Marley covers, including "Jammin'" and "Could You Be Loved." Hill sang along with Marley on the track, and it may have been preferable for her to just be alone. She could sing you "Happy Birthday" and you'd still feel like it was the most special thing you've ever heard in your life. Best of all, though, was a cover of Cher's "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)."
Much to everyone's relief, Hill eventually performed the soulful, quiet version of "Killing Me Softly" that we all expected, and it was better than any of us could've hoped. It doesn't matter how many times you've heard that song, there is nothing comparable to seeing it live. As a vocalist, Hill is interesting without being indulgent, something that the newest crop of R&B stars could learn from. Each note feels exactly placed, like it belongs there.
Whatever may have happened earlier in Hill's tour to make it underwhelming, she didn't bring any of that to Dallas. The quick, less-than-90-minute set was tightly played, energetic and entirely satisfying. As she jumped into "Doo Wop (That Thing)," the last song of the evening, she was as on-point as she has been at any other moment in her career. Even when she's not doing your favorite song exactly as you hear it on the record, you don't care because it's just consistently so damn good.
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I went into last night's show at least partially expecting to be disappointed, but the critics who hated Hill's latest performances have entirely missed the point. Sure, she's ditched the soulful R&B arrangements in favor of funky, reggae-infused backing, but who the fuck cares? If you want to hear "Killing Me Softly" the way you remember it, sit your ass at home and listen on your turntable. But if you want to hear a woman who is still one of the best rappers in the game and one of the best vocalists of her generation, sit down, shut up, and let her do her music her way.
Hill may have her ups and downs as an artist and performer, but when she is "up," there is maybe no better live show. She could have probably made that audience at South Side Ballroom wait for 10 hours instead of two and they'd still have gladly lined up around the building. With a performance like this, one can only hope that Hill's career is headed for a long-overdue revival.
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