Lauryn Hill is weird, but she isn't crackhead weird. She's more Beyond the Valley of the Dolls party scene weird. At least, that's how she struck me when she stepped on the stage Tuesday night at New York's Highline Ballroom. It was a make-up show for a date that was canceled at the end of December, thanks to the (first) Snowpocalypse. Doors were at 8; Ms. Lauryn Hill (that's how she's billed everywhere -- tickets, marquees, posted notes around the venue -- as if we needed pre-show warning of her eccentricity!) was set to take the stage at 11. The Highline, or maybe Lauryn's people, or maybe Lauryn herself, or maybe everyone working together to get through this thing called life has realized a thing or two since she embarked on this career-reminding tour (it could be called the Might as Well Do Something With This Talent of Mine Show). Namely, what's clear is that homegirl is preternaturally late. She's spent more time the past two decades not releasing records -- she was active for seven years beginning with the Fugees' Blunted on Reality in 1994 (fine, eight years beginning with the Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit soundtrack in 1993). It's been almost 10 years since Unplugged No. 2.0. For a moment on Tuesday night, it felt like we'd wait another eternity to see her again -- 45 minutes after she was supposed to hit the stage, her DJ announced that she was feeling under the weather and would be later than she already was. What did that mean? 12:30? 1? 2? Never? Would she seriously make us come out with a winter storm brewing for nothing? Assessing the moment and stops and starts and teasing and mess of her career of the past 10 years, all I could think was: this woman is such a pain in the ass.
But that all melted away (like I wish the snow that's vandalizing our city all year would) when she finally joined the stage at the merciful hour of 12:10, rolling and bopping her head, taking weird, tiny steps as if walking through a wading pool of mayonnaise. (Mayonnaise!) Her thrift-store mannequin chic found her in a muumuu, with neck, arms and fingers full of gaudy jewelery. "New York! New York! New York! New York! New York!...New York, New York!...New York City! New York Citay! New York City, I said! I said, New York Cit-tay!" were her first words to us. Immediately, she reminded me of Whitney Houston right before the Just Whitney era (hits included "Crack is wack!" and the Wendy Williams interview). Fantastic, I thought. It's not that I wish devastating, career-sucking addiction on anyone, I just like character. Flamboyance. Unpredictability.Skittishness as performance art.
And that, with some help of what appeared to be a coked-up bravado (she barely took a break from dabbing herself with a towel), is what Ms. Lauryn Hill delivered. Multiple times throughout the two or so hours she was on stage, I thought to myself, "If this weren't what it is, it could be so boring." Imagine Lauryn bringing her drum machine to rehash past hits in a perfect voice. Imagine if she were a Stepford pop star who was simply too busy cleaning and straightening pillows for the past 10 years and simply lost track of time. Imagine Unplugged 3.0. The alternative she offered -- a giant band that included at least two keyboard players, multiple guitarists, three back-up singers, a drummer and a DJ -- was so much more thrilling. She acknowledged her "raspy" voice ("But that’s OK. We’re gonna do it anyway, you understand?") through a 10-or-so song, stretched out journey that found her performing radically altered renditions of her solo and Fugees hits. "I've been doing these same songs forever. We gotta keep it interesting. I don't want to come up here and be phony for you. I wanna come up here and feel it, you understand?" she told the crowd on these new arrangements. She said it defiantly but it wasn't clear if it was in response to audience complaining. I can't imagine anyone in the room having the balls to stand up to this woman, really. She was too unhinged, and so was her show.
This was no well-oiled machine before us -- Lauryn regularly directed her band, the sound guy, the lighting guy and the audience throughout. After all, why sound check before when you can just integrate it into the show? It was hard to tell if the scowl that accompanied her directions was one of anger or concentration -- either way, I cannot imagine that her band is anything but scared shitless of this woman. She was as much a conductor (at times wildly failing her arms and body to bring out sound) as she was a singer and rapper that night, and she displayed a tendency to repeat directions as though they were chants to a power higher than the mere mortals she shared space with ("Builditupbuilditupbuilditup!"). That repetition was something of a musical aesthetic, too, as she'd spiral into tangents for minutes on end. The repeated ad-libs of "When It Hurts So Bad" ("I just stayed a little too long," "I gave too much of me," "If you just let it...") lasted seven or so minutes -- way longer than the structured song that came before them. She ran through a particularly hard, thrashy cover of "Ex-Factor," only to play the song again immediately in its entirety, but in a slightly less thrashy arrangement. The entire suite lasted about 25 minutes. "OK. I like 'Ex-Factor,'" I thought. I certainly wasn't arguing. She did her "How Many Mics" two times in a row -- lest you even thought of going there, she was making you think twice, mon frère.
It's impossible to imagine how crippling megastardom is unless you've experienced it, but very soon after The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill won the hearts of the globe's entire English-speaking population, Lauryn voiced her displeasure with her industry and the very concept of fame. I got the impression that she felt like an outsider who'd magically slipped inside. I interpreted her frequent repetition onstage as her negotiation of herself within pop music's constraints (loops and choruses and the like). After all, unpredictability within repetition is a pretty amazing trick to pull off. And she did and it was singular and captivating.
My only complaint is in response to her music's tendency to rev into high gear to stress fraught emotion. Not only was I less than jazzed about being presented what was essentially a rock show, Lauryn comes from the soul tradition and should show that it was her job to interpret her songs -- it is not her songs' job to interpret her. There's thinking out of the box, and then there's abandoning your essence. Luckily, Lauryn's messy humanity, weathered voice and all-around imperfection was there to remind us not only that she still has plenty of soul, but that for the past 10 years, this woman has been living.
The video above focuses on her often-hilarious between-song banter, so I'm including some music below (namely, "Ready or Not," which has an ad-libbed section about her finding her audience again and us finding her that's moving despite how manipulative it was intended to be, and "Killing Me Softly," to give you a sense of her voice and how different these arrangements are). I haven't been keeping up with YouTubes of her recent performances since I wanted to keep it all a surprise for when I finally attended this show, but my new Zoom cam's mics are made for concert recording, and I doubt you'll find a better-sounding audience video of Ms. Lauryn on all of the Internet.)