When my girl sends me an advance ticket sales link to Lauryn Hill at the Blue Note—part of a series of intimate concerts on the east coast—I grab them up, despite the $100+ ticket price. Why? Well, it’s Lauryn Hill. L. Boogie. South Orange New Jersey-born quadruple-threat goddess. Her. That ten years have passed since Ms. Hill literally and figuratively took a step back from her audience, made a Blue Note performance even more intriguing. There really is no place for anyone to hide in that smallish legendary jazz club.
There were concerns, sure. Reviews of recent past performances had been sketchy and inconsistent. I remember seeing Lauryn perform at Madison Square Garden in ’98 and bringing grown men to tears. The next time I saw her was in Central Park in the mid 2000s; she was doing an appearance for something or another, came out mad late, gave a lackluster performance, and me and my girls, her fans, bounced. Early. If not for the kids, you’d think she was having a premature Nina Simone moment.
No one wants to be a sentimental fool.
Then, days before the Blue Note, came reviews from other venues. A four-hour wait in Williamsburg that forces some audience members leave early, including Prince Rogers Nelson. When audiences expressed their discontent directly (front-row, sheet-of-paper signs that read, “You just lost one.”), Lauryn responded with a certain defensiveness, speaking martyr-like of musical sacrifices made in her twenties, pointing the “disrespectful” toward the door for a refund and saying, “I personally know I’m worth the wait.” But the actual performance reviews? Said one outlet: Fantastic.
Inside the Blue Note, at 12:20 am, Lauryn descends from her dressing room, down the stair, through the crowd to the stage to raucous applause fueled, no doubt, by booze, relief and genuine happy-to-see-her-ness.
The set begins with Bob Marley’s “Forever Loving Jah," which she occasionally interchanges with “God.” Her signature raspy voice is strong, “Crisp”, my girl put it. “Like she’s not smoking weed.” She journeys from her 1998, five-Grammy award winning debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (“Lost Ones," “Ex-Factor," “When It Hurts So Bad”), to The Fuguees' multiplatinum game-changer, The Score (“How Many Mics," “Zealots," “Fugee-La”). Most songs, especially from Miseducation, were remixed with a sort of driving, synth-rock edge, to which she played a “see if you can guess this one” game. I personally found the remixes, though sometimes too fast, a refreshing change from the Cooley-High vibe that dates Miseducation.
Once, in the early 2000s when she performed at Def Poetry Jam, an audience member shouted, “We love you Lauryn,” to which Lauryn reportedly replied, “You don’t know me.” This time she said, “I love you too.” Or “I miss you too. That’s why I’m here.” Never an exclamation point, but firm. Guarded perhaps, in that way celebrity, that life, can do to a person, to a woman.
There was, in fact, a palpable push and pull; as if on a swing, we, the people, pushed her and she pushed back, the energy rising higher and higher. The mojo was working. I have never, ever seen people standing in their chairs at the Blue Note, but there they were. Through “Ready or Not," through “Killing Me Softly.” I suppose some of this ecstatic moment was nostalgic for the obvious reasons, but homegirl was putting on a show. Most important, Hill was having fun. Get down, rip-the-mic fun. Heads were jumping up like it was the ‘90s and they were rocking dreadlocks and backpacks, and she loved it.
After the encore, “Doo Wop (That Thing),” the night was over. What a ride. Musically, Lauryn’s gone deeper. And in many ways she’s free-er. You can see it in her eyes. How she sings—stronger, fuller, taking more chances. There was a maturity in her phrasing; a quickness and dare I say a daring (I want to say sexiness but that’s not it; it’s more like woman-knowing) in her movement. Still that signature “ha” after delivering a particularly dope rhyme. Call me a sentimental fool but that made me glad. Because I missed Her.
Loving Lauryn has not been easy, and I think that’s in some way intentional. Like loving any flawed person/artist/rock star, it’s a decision. I made mine and…wow. Lauryn, God bless her, has not lost me yet.