You should never walk into a Lauryn Hill concert with expectations. It's dangerous. Over the past few years, Hill has inched back into the spotlight. She had taken a lengthy reprieve following the success of her 1998 solo debut record The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which turned her into an icon.
But just as her status as a musician has risen, so has her reputation for being a diva. The rumors started after she left the Fugees at their peak, and she has provided plenty of proof in her solo career. The main blemish on her record is frequent, extreme tardiness to her performances. Last year she showed up to a gig in Atlanta two hours late and left the stage after 20 minutes. She wrote off that mistake saying that the “challenge is aligning my energy with the time."
The venue she played Thursday night with Nas, the Pavilion at Toyota Music Factory, is brand new and still working out its kinks. Given that and the evening's intermittent showers, the show appeared as a recipe for disaster. But you’d be hard pressed to find folks who walked away from last night’s concert disappointed.
Only those who knew that the schedule had Nas’ set penciled in to start at 8:05 p.m., followed by a collaborative performance with Hill of their track “If I Ruled The World," would have felt reason to complain. Nas didn’t start his set until 9 p.m. and the song was omitted. Otherwise, delays were unnoticeable and their performance felt professional.
Nothing was standard about Ms. Lauryn Hill’s headlining set, however. As the artist strolled to the microphone at center stage, she was met with roars of cheers. Those in the front row leapt out of their seats and ran up to the barricade, bunching in tight for the rest of the night.
As the notes to “Everything Is Everything” began to ring, out the song felt familiar but it wasn’t the same platinum single you heard all over the radio in 1999. Instead, Hill rearranges most of her music in varying degrees depending on what she’s feeling that night.
On Thursday, the audience seemed to peacefully accept revisions to hits from her seminal debut such as “Ex-Factor,” “Final Hour” and “Lost Ones." The most important thing, after all, is that she performed each with passion. And she did — with passion rarely seen from artists performing 20-year-old songs, in fact.
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Many bands like Radiohead, who refused to perform "Creep," act as if playing their most recognizable songs is a chore. If all it takes is a little rearranging for Hill to find joy in an old routine, then it's a fair trade.
Glimpses of the difficult person written about in tabloids were visible, however. While it was possible as a listener to close your eyes and take in the moment, those watching couldn't help but notice the sharp glares Hill frequently directed at sound engineers throughout Thursday's performance.
She was the evening's conductor, indicating at various times to raise her vocals, the three-piece backup vocals or the live band’s instrumentation. It also wasn’t rare to see her turn around and specifically call out members of the band for perceived mistakes.
But Ms. Lauryn Hill is a perfectionist. There’s no getting around it. It’s the reason she left the Fugees; it’s the reason she produced The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill without the help of her record label; it’s the reason she hasn't released another album since; and it’s the reason she’s late on occasion. Everything has to be perfect. And that’s how you produce timeless songs and wind up with grand performances like last night's.
In the days leading up to the show in Irving, Hill’s name was tossed around in stories about “Bodak Yellow” earning the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, because Cardi B is now the first female rapper to have the top song in the country with no features, since Lauryn Hill’s “Doo-Wop” topped the charts in 1998, another testament to her process.
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Hill and Nas have both said publicly that this tour — which benefits dozens of charities, displayed in a video before the show — means a lot to them. The charitable aspect may have something to do with their heightened professionalism.
While Nas is a legend in his own right, he didn’t do much compete against Hill for attention on Thursday. The Queens rapper, who is often guarded or even apathetic seeming during his performances, did look remarkably happy during his set. However, it was a bit jarring how fast he ran through his catalog. He quickly bounced from track to track, doing only one or two verses from songs such as “Black Republican,” “Got Yourself A Gun,” “I Can” and crowd favorite “Oochie Wally."
Maybe the most remarkable aspect of the night is that these two legendary artists, who are well into their 40s, felt relevant and of the time. We're watching the booming '90s rap era age, but this clearly wasn't a classics tour. Even if Lauryn Hill and Nas have over 20 years in the music business, if either were to drop an album tomorrow — and Nas is rumored to be releasing one this year — they would both be newsworthy.