Lauryn Hill review – a difficult re-education

Birmingham Arena
Once the soul voice of a generation, Lauryn Hill has long had a reputation for being a difficult star. But could she do justice to her landmark album?

It could all be so simple, you might argue; but Lauryn Hill would rather make it hard. The 20th anniversary tour of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the five-Grammy-winning, game-changing cri de coeur from a reluctant pop star, has gone down in the annals as one of pop’s most notorious waiting games.

Never mind the legend of the album itself – written in exasperation and hope after the dissolution of the Fugees, and the relationship between Hill and her bandmate Wyclef Jean; a towering achievement, after which Hill effectively disappeared, keeping far away from the Babylon of the music industry and raising her children in the bosom of the Marley family. When she arrives on stage in Birmingham on Tuesday just a little after 10pm, this tour’s already sizable Stateside myth (cancellations, lateness, challenging reworkings of the songs) comes bolstered by the ire of French fans unimpressed by the singer’s incurable tardiness last week. Complainants took to Hill’s Facebook page to vent; “miseducated”, you note, literally means ‘ill-mannered’ in France.

In reality, her 1998 album title actually nodded to The Miseducation of the Negro, a 1933 work in which US author Carter G Woodson raised the issue of black children being indoctrinated into subordinate roles in US schools. The answer Woodson proposed was to look beyond the classroom, to self-education.

Miseducation – the Lauryn Hill album – channelled some precious learning for a generation or more of young women, black and white alike; one in which a ferociously talented artist preached self-determination and self-respect, self-knowledge and getting one’s due. It was foremother to Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer; Drake once believed he was the first star who nailed both rapping and singing, but Hill got there first. (He has since apologised by sampling Hill’s Ex Factor in his summer hit, Nice for What). Last year, Cardi B broke Lauryn Hill’s record for being the only female rapper ever to get to No 1 in the US Billboard charts and remain for weeks. Cardi B acknowledged the passing of the baton by sampling Ex Factor on Be Careful. Wry observers noted that Hill’s conscious, loving, upright masterpiece had been dethroned by the very kind of sexually available, strife-filled music Miseducation had railed against.

Tonight, Hill retains the moral authority to do what she feels – ie, smash the venue’s curfew by nearly half an hour, and rearrange her songs. Forewarned, the rescores are not as galling as they could be, had so many ‘buyer beware’ warnings not trailed Hill for years. People have been complaining since at least 2011; Hill’s waywardness in performance was captured as long ago as 2002 for an MTV Unplugged album. Anyone here tonight must, therefore, be up for The Reinterpretation by Lauryn Hill.

Her latest reworkings pair the blare and stab of a soul revue with a kind of jazzy freedom. It’s not awful, just not great. Artists can re-edit their work fruitfully. There is little tonight, however, that justifies mucking about with one of the greatest albums in living memory.

But it’s not a bad gig. The cognitive dissonance kicks off with Lost Ones, the swaggering album opener, where Hill proves from the off that she can still rap righteously. She gesticulates at the sound man to turn her vocals up in her monitors; you get the impression that the distance between Hill’s voice and the rest of the instruments might not have been calibrated properly. There is a lot of vamping coming off the musicians, but you struggle to discern melodies. You often strain to hear Hill’s words, which deserve to be hung on.

By Superstar, a kind of call-and-response has broken out between Hill and her three excellent backing vocalists: they carry the choruses and melodies that she shuns. Ex Factor – widely assumed to be about Wyclef, whose autobiography expanded on the pair’s fraught off-on relationship, which ran in parallel with his marriage – is a great song compromised, not least by a ghastly electric guitar solo.

The guitarist destroys Carlos Santana’s formerly lovely Spanish guitar intro on To Zion as well. Towards the end of Zion, Hill is singing a cappella, one of roughly half a dozen points in the gig where her spectacular vocals are allowed to soar. This song marks the year more than any other: baby Zion, the child many around her in 1996-7 urged Hill not to have (“Lauryn, baby, use your head”) is now 21 and a father himself. “My joy!” says Hill: it’s not as if she didn’t warn her fans that love was more important than recorded music.

There has been speculation on the internet that Hill might not have the liberty to sing the songs as her fans remember them, possibly due to fallout from the lawsuit brought by a number of previously uncredited musicians that was settled – in their favour – in 2001.

Hill has publicly rebutted all this, and other accusations levelled at her, most notably by a musician who has previously worked with her. (For the record, the band do have to call her Ms Hill, but they don’t have to look down when addressing her.) Hill, then, is doing her songs as she sees fit, even if her emancipation doesn’t fit our equation. At its best, this haughty disdain serves the legend of Lauryn Hill well – singing her truth, then putting her private life before stardom – but it has also extended to being jailed for not paying taxes.

Watch the video for Doo-Wop (That Thing) by Lauryn Hill.

As a fan, you want Hill to play the badass, but it still irks that the woman who taught everyone the meaning of the word “reciprocity” doesn’t go in for it herself. When It Hurts So Bad fares better than most songs, emerging intact as 60s soul. In a speech, Hill talks about having “a desire to bridge the gap” between the music she was raised on and the classic hip-hop all around her. It’s hard to remember how revolutionary this was at the time.

The legend and the performer align magnificently for Forgive Them Father, where footage – filmed on police bodycams and jerky phones – of a multitude of black victims of white police violence plays out agonisingly behind the song. The band’s distress is right and fitting, Hill’s scornful and despairing emphasis perfect.

The encore, Killing Me Softly – the Fugees version of Roberta Flack’s song – has its moments. Chiefly, these occur on the arena concourse after the gig, where half of Birmingham sings it as it was.

Having heard so much about Hill’s sketchiness, it’s a pleasure to discover the star is not a damaged casualty, but rather, lucid and engaged. She looks amazing: short hair offset with a sparkly fascinator, orange eyeshadow, a shiny, oversized mackintosh that glows electric blue in the lights, burgundy jumper, grey culottes, gold platform heels: she looks like Janelle Monáe playing Nina Simone for a fashion shoot (sadly, photographic agency shots from Birmingham were unavailable). She clutches a small black towel in one hand all night. From time to time she mops her brow, and at what sometimes look like tears.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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