Lauryn Hill @ Celebrity Theatre|11/28/12
"Life out of context is living ungodly," Ms. Lauryn Hill sings in "Black Rage," the new song she's named her 2012 tour after.
Built over a jazzy interpolation of the Sound of Music's "My Favorite Things," the song is heavy, exploring the brutal and checkered history of Black America: "Two-thirds a person," "rapings," "beatings," "victims of violence both psyche and body." It's the centerpiece of her show, an important moment that underscores that Hill has never been into the idea of easy lyricism, and that she isn't afraid to approach uncomfortable, but important, topics. So when she finished the song to a sea of whoops and cheers, she must have wondered if the message was lost on the audience, and a sea of cellphone camera flash. "What did I just say?" she queried.
"Listen," she commanded. Then she recited the lyrics. Sans music, alone at the mic, the spotlight shining down in the darkened round of Celebrity Theatre. "Try if you must," she bellowed, "but you can't have my soul."
Examining Hill's music without context feels similarly base. Her time with The Fugees in the mid-'90s established her as a powerful force in the world of hip-hop; her 1998 solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, earned her a spot at the top of the Billboard charts and five Grammy awards. But that "Black Rage" line about not getting her soul? It's a defining one for Hill. She retreated from the music world after Miseductation's success (and the success of a record she co-produced, Santana's Supernatural). She emerged in 2001 for an MTV Unplugged performance of sparse folk/soul compositions, but then returned to life out of the spotlight.
Her return to performance might be motivated by financial necessity, but it hardly matters. Hill, armed with a 12-piece band (11-piece, if the crouching guy with the MacBook wasn't contributing musically), was electrifying last night. Any return-to-stage jitters have been exorcised, and her commanding set of hip-hop, psychedelic rock, dub, soul, and reggae reminded everyone in the audience exactly why we've missed her so much.
Hill and band opened with a spacey dub version of "Killing Me Softly," her trio of background singer's voices echoing like they were trapped deep in belly of the Black Ark studios of lore. "We're going to turn the subjective into the objective," she stated as the band dove into a trippy take on "Everything Is Everything."
She piloted the band through a series of back-to-back numbers, segueing seamlessly from Bob Marley's "Concrete Jungle," into "Forgive Them Father" and "Final Hour," the latter of which demonstrated her blisteringly fast rhyming.
"The ladies here, right?" she asked as the band eased into "Ex-Factor," an emotional highlight of the evening. The band's taut groove didn't sound unlike the sort of thing The Weeknd or Drake might do today, but instead of cold detachment, Hill exploded over the track, seething, scat singing, and cooing until the band joined her in emotion, the guitars stinging and ringing out. It was a knockout.
Following the turbulence of "Black Rage," Hill dropped into a set of Fugees material. The crowd went off as she demonstrated punk rock speed and James Brown-style control of her band during "How Many Mics." Every song was a workout, stretched and pulled by Hill to her satisfaction. "Fu-Gee-La" shined a light on the pitch-perfect trio of vocalists to Hill's side, and "Ready or Not," featured everyone on stage bouncing in synchronicity. Hill mentioned something about a "natural high;" the audience was clearly feeling it.
Hill exited the stage following a reprise rendition of "Killing Me Softly," and returned for an energetic encore. The band utilized the gospel message of Bob Marley's "Could You Be Loved," and improvised, at Hill's request of course, a performance of Friends of Distinction's "Going in Circles," a special treat for Phoenicians inspired by Celebrity's rotating stage.
She closed with her classic, "Doo Wop (That Thing)." "We gonna see you again," she repeated as a mantra as the band dropped to low murmur, "God willing we gonna see you again." As the band revved back up, Hill effortlessly singing over the roar, it felt like a genuine promise. Hope to see you again very soon, Ms. Hill.
Read on for the setlist and Critic's Notebook.
Last Night: Ms. Lauryn Hill @ Celebrity Theatre
The Crowd: Ready to move.
Overheard: "Where's the DJ? I don't even see the fuckin' DJ!"
Let's Just Take a Moment to Admire How Amazing the Robert Flack "Killing Me Softly" Single Cover Looks: I mean, wow.
Lauryn Hill, A Unifier: Reportedly, both Michelle Obama and John McCain are big Lauryn Hill fans. That says something -- something really, really great -- about both of them and America in general.
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Killing Me Softly Everything Is Everything Superstar Concrete Jungle (Bob Marley) Forgive Them Father Final Hour Lost Ones Ex Factor Black Rage How Many Mics Fu-Gee-La Ready or Not Killing Me Softly [Encore] Turn Your Lights Down Low Could You Be Loved (Bob Marley) Going in Circles (Friends of Distinction) Doo Wop (That Thing)