Lauryn Hill, Nas Palladium Ballroom Monday, October 29
From darkness there was light, sound and a burst of atomic energy as Nas came to the stage with a gang of musicians ready to work through a 90-minute set last night at the Palladium Ballroom. It only took the four minutes of the first song for the crowd to come on board.
"No Introduction" came through the speakers with a dedication to Kelis, and two bars in, the drums pulled out to give him two beats from the rhythm section. We are in a brave new world in regards to the arrangements from Nas' musical director, Dustin Moore, and backing band, Z. The rest of the night had heavy dashes of James Brown and Prince running through the background. It's clear the grown-up Nas is loving this sophisticated background and he took control of the mic more like a rock god than an emcee.
A section connecting "Represent" and "N.Y. State of Mind" segued into a literal James Brown jam and jumped right into "Daughters," before he slowed down the night a little. His crowd work game was on point too, as he pulled out a bottle of Champagne and a single flute to share with a lucky lady in the front row. "A Queens Story" was especially touching, and reminded us that both he and Lauryn Hill may be fully present in song, but some part of their mind was with loved ones on the East Coast.
"Hate Me Now" changed the mood and showed the band in its finest, biggest, most epic hour. At least until we got to "World's An Addiction," where it became clear Nas and band may be performing on a whole different planet. It occurred to me this tour deserves a live recording.
Nas' set ended at 10:30 and Ms. Hill stepped on stage sometime around 12:15. I was sort of shocked how few were prepared for the wait. And, for the record, I've waited longer for Ms. Badu.The DJ was getting booed song after song, and with the Drake drops and some of the younger hits, it was an admitted bad match for the crowd. He found a reggae groove leading up to her entrance that managed to soothe those who had not left.
The lights finally dropped and it was quiet, as Hill scratched from backstage: "I get out, I get out of all your boxes." For a minute, the Hill crowd gave the Bieber-ites across town a run for their money. Very quickly we were reminded the wait was worth it.
She was wildly conducting the band, the sound engineer and, seemingly, the light guy. This wasn't the image of a band playing a rehearsed song; this was a painter pulling color out of pots in real time. They were having a conversation to create the song and it was compelling. Hill's band also did brand-new arrangements of nearly every song, and the set delved into the psych side of reggae, emerging as some Fela Kuti-Tina Turner hybrid.
"I can see some of you deciding to move or not move," Hill said. "Deciding if I am sane, or not sane. I can see you deciding if you are still down with a free spirit like me. And I want you to know I get it. So you make the decision, but don't be late."
This show was not haunted by her reputation. Her voice sounded like bourbon being poured, and she brought new life to a catalog that was already technically perfect. She didn't skip The Fugees tracks, and when she hit those rap sections, I could only dream of what her career would have been like if an A&R guy would have pushed her in the hip-hop direction instead of R&B. Still, she did it all with unmatched skill, no matter what the chatter has been about her work in the last decade.
The magic came when she finally hit the single from her upcoming album, Black Rage. A re-appropriation of "A Few of My Favorite Things," Rage is a smart articulation of the social and political constructs informing her description of black rage. And yes, it focuses on racial dynamics, on the description of oppression and its aftermath. The crowd was listening to every word, and afterward, Hill presented the lyrics for those who may have lost them in the contagious beat: "Black rage is founded on draining and draining/Threaten your freedom, so you'll stop complaining/Poison the water, while they say it's raining/They call you mad for complaining, complaining/Old time bureaucracy, drugging the youth/Black rage is founded on blocking the truth."
It was church in there, and I mean that as compliment. She looked back out and said, "Don't let them tell you who you are. Sometimes you are ahead of the curve. They don't know what to do with you when you are ahead of the curve."
And maybe she wasn't late at all. Maybe she was somewhere we all should have thought to be. Maybe we were too early.
Random note: Does "Fu-Gee-La" have the best hook of all time? Discuss.
Pro-tip: You guys, it's Lauryn. Bring something to read.